Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

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Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Set in the 1930s and 1940s, this is the story of Anna Kerrigan, a New Yorker of Irish extraction whose father disappears after working for a gangster who owns several nightclubs. Egan focuses on interesting side notes from history, but her insertion of context is not very natural and in trying to cover so much ground she spends too much time away from Anna. All told, historical fiction is not her forte; this is a fairly generic novel compared to her previous one, the highly original and Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 448 Date: October 2017
Publisher: Corsair
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781472150875

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Jennifer Egan's first work of historical fiction opens with eleven-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanying her father, Eddie, on a visit to Dexter Styles' home near Manhattan Beach. This is a secret meeting because Styles, a nightclub owner, is a known gangster. We get the sense that Eddie would only consider working for Styles because he's desperate: it's the 1930s, not many years after the Kerrigans lost most of their money in the stock market crash. Especially with the prejudice that still surrounds hiring the Irish, Eddie knows he can't be too picky about the type of work he accepts, especially if he is ever to afford a $380 wheelchair for his younger daughter, Lydia, who is severely mentally and physically handicapped.

This first introduction to Anna conveys some important details about her: like her father, she is deprived but desperate not to show it, so she stubbornly refuses to take home the posh doll the Styles children's nanny offers her out of pity. She also impresses Mr Styles with her stoic response to the cold of the ocean in late December when she dips her toes into it. This is one tough girl, and she'll certainly need that fortitude when her father disappears a few years later.

After a brief Part One, Part Two picks up with Anna, aged 19, contributing to the war effort by working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Most of the girls are married with husbands overseas, but Anna still lives at home with her mother and Lydia, who needs constant care. Anna still finds time for some fun, though: a new friend, Nell, who's seeing a married man, introduces her to smoking and nightclubs. One night Anna sees Dexter Styles at his Moonshine club and goes up to speak to him, but for some reason can't bring herself mention their shared history so gives him a fake name. This rekindled relationship will be crucial.

Meanwhile, Anna is fixated on the idea of becoming one of the divers undertaking underwater repairs on ships in the Naval Yard. Against the odds, she eventually becomes the only female diver. It's fascinating to read about the reality of diving in the 1940s, starting with putting on the extremely heavy metal suit. Egan clearly did a mountain of research to be able to describe Anna's dives convincingly – she mentions in the acknowledgments that she first started researching this book in 2004. In other places, though, the evidence of her historical research is too obvious, with brand names, slang, and war developments peppered in so thickly that they don't suggest the time period so much as shove it down your throat.

I couldn't help but compare this in my mind with Egan's previous novel, the highly original A Visit From the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. That book was so impressive because it captured the present moment perfectly and took risks with narration, including a chapter in the second person and another in the form of a Powerpoint presentation. By comparison, Manhattan Beach is merely serviceable historical fiction and tended to lose my interest when it dove into flashbacks to Eddie's earlier life or veered away to spend lots of time with Dexter Styles. My interest was only ever in Anna, so these sections prioritising other characters felt rather like time wasted. I also thought the approximation of Lydia's thought life was almost offensive.

This novel was born out of a fascination with New York City's little-known waterfront history, and some of my favourite passages were indeed atmospheric accounts of Brooklyn Navy Yard, like this one: In the rich late-October sunlight, the Naval Yard arrayed itself before her with the precision of a diagram: ships of all sizes berthed four deep on pronglike piers. In the dry docks, ships were held in place by hundreds of filament ropes, like Gulliver tied to the beach. The hammerhead crane brandished its fist to the east; to the west loomed the building ways cages. Around all of it, railroad tracks spiraled into whorls of paisley.

Although there are a couple of dramatic twists and the occasional description of that quality awaiting the patient reader, overall this is not a stand-out work of historical fiction. I look forward to Egan returning to what she's so good at: commentary on contemporary America.

Further reading suggestion: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell brings New York City's gangster life to more vibrant life. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is another recent work of historical fiction that we can recommend.

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