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Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Diving in

Cover imageThere will be lots of fans standing ready for this one, I’m sure. It’s been seven years since the excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad which bagged both the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award. Manhattan Beach is very different, not least because it’s Egan’s first historical novel. Beginning in the Great Depression, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who has learned to fend for herself after the disappearance of her father, and Dexter Styles who may be able to tell her what has happened to him.

Anna adores Eddie who takes his bright young daughter with him to business meetings. The stock market crash has driven him to the fringes of gangsterism, working as a bagman for the childhood friend he saved from drowning. Eddie steers a careful course, wary of risk but needing to support the wife he adores and their severely disabled daughter a little younger than Anna. One day, Eddie takes Anna to Manhattan Beach where they meet Dexter Styles and his family. This is the beginning of a business relationship which will last until Eddie disappears, having made sure his family are looked after. Years later, Anna is working in the Naval Yard checking parts for warships. Summoning all her grit and determination she finds her way onto the diving programme essential to ship maintenance, defeating its leader’s sneering prejudice. When she spots Styles at one of his nightclubs, she becomes determined to find out what happened to Eddie but finds herself embroiled in more than she bargained for.

Egan’s novel explores the history of mid-twentieth century America through the lens of Anna’s experience. She’s a smart, strong character, taught to interpret the world by her father and wary of what she might give away. She’s different from the women around her: Nell makes her way through sex and what it buys her; Rose is bringing up a child, working while her husband is at war but Anna uses her intelligence and determination to break into a staunchly masculine sphere, earning respect but not without a fight. Styles’ world contrasts with the hard graft of the shipyards, moneyed and comfortable but hanging by a thread of influence. Egan has clearly done a great deal of research for this novel, all framed within an engrossing story replete with some very smart writing: ‘the man raised in him a welt of provocation whose itch he could barely withstand’; ‘No one talked more than men on ships, but the point of the stories they told was to hide the ones they could never divulge to anyone’. It’s an accomplished, enjoyable piece of fiction but all stitched in a little too neatly for me – to say more on that would be to give too much away. I’ll be interested to see what other Egan fans make of it.