Historical fiction for those interested in the history of New York, women’s history during WWII, and followers of Egan’s career.

Manhattan Beach: A Novel - Jennifer Egan

Thanks to NetGalley and to Scribner for providing me with an ARC copy of this book (due for publication in October) that I freely chose to review.

I read Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad a few years back and I was fascinated by its language, the stories, the way the story was told, and its inventiveness. When I saw Egan’s new book on offer at NetGalley I couldn’t resist. I have not read any of Egan’s other novels, but this one is very different from A Visit. For starters, this is a historical fiction novel. Both from the content of the novel and from the author’s acknowledgements at the end, we get a clear sense of how much research has gone into it. The novel covers a period around World War II, in New York and the surrounding area, and focuses on three stories that are interconnected, and are also connected to seafaring, the seafront, New York, and to the war era. The story goes backwards and forwards at times, sometimes through the memories of the characters, and sometimes within the same chapter, we get to see how that particular character got to that point. Although the story is narrated in the third person, we are firmly inside the character’s heads, and we can be at sea one minute, and the next at home remembering one gesture, a smile…

Anna Kerrigan is the strongest character and the one we spend more time with. We follow her story and know of her circumstances: a severely disabled sister, a father who disappears, and a mother who decides to go back to her family. Anna is a young woman, independent and determined to live her own life. She has never made peace with her father’s disappearance and remembers a strange encounter, when she accompanied her father as a child, with a man later revealed to be a gangster. Anna’s story was the one I was most interested in. Partly, because she was the character we got to know in more detail, partly because of her eagerness and determination, as she decides to become a diver and does not give up until she achieves her goal (at a time when being a woman severely limited one’s options, even during the war, when there were a few more openings, as she was already working at the Navy Yard). Her relationship with her sister, her training to become a diver (and you feel as if you were with her inside the incredibly heavy suit), and her obsession with finding out what happened to her father make her somebody to root for, although I found it difficult to engage at an emotional level with the character (it was as if she was contemplating herself at a distance and always analysing what she was doing, except for some brief moments when we get a sense of what she is feeling).

Dexter Styles is a strange character: he married a woman of the upper-class, and he has a good relationship with her father and her family, but by that point he was already involved in some shady deals and the underbelly of New York clubs and gambling joints, and he is smart, elegant, classy, but also ruthless and a gangster. I’ve read in a number of reviews that there are better books about New York gangsters of the period, and although I don’t recall having read any, I suspect that is true. I found the background of the character interesting, and his thoughts about the links between banking, politics, legal business, and illegal enterprises illuminating, but I am not sure I would say I completely got to know the character and did not feel particularly attached to it. (His relationship with Anna is a strange one. Perhaps it feels as if it was fate at work, but although I could understand to a certain extent Anna’s curiosity and attraction, Styles did not appear to be a man who’d risk everything for a fling. And yet…).

Eddie, Anna’s father, makes a surprise appearance later in the book and we get to learn something that by that point we have suspected for a while. From the reviews I’ve read, I’m probably one of the only people who enjoyed Eddie’s story, well, some parts of it. I love Melville (and the book opens with one of his quotes) and when Eddie is at sea, in the Merchant Navy, and his ship sinks, there were moments that I found truly engaging and touching. He is not a sympathetic character overall, as he takes a terribly selfish decision at one point in the book, but seems to redeem himself (or is at least trying) by the end.

This is a long book, but despite that, I felt the end was a bit rushed. We discover things that had been hidden for most of the book, several characters make life-changing decisions in quick succession, and I was not totally convinced that the decisions fitted the psychological makeup of the characters or the rest of the story, although it is a satisfying ending in many ways.

The novel’s rhythm is slow, although as I mentioned above, it seems to speed up at the end. There are jumps forward and backwards in time, that I did not find particularly difficult to follow, but it does require a degree of alertness. There are fascinating secondary characters (Nell, the bosun…), and the writing is beautifully descriptive and can make us share in the experiences of the characters at times, but I also felt it didn’t invite a full emotional engagement with them. I was not a hundred per cent sure that the separate stories interconnected seamlessly enough or fitted in together, and I suspect different readers will like some of the characters more than others, although none are totally blameless or sympathetic. An interesting book for those who love historical fiction of that period, especially those who enjoy women’s history, and I’d also recommend it to those who love seafaring adventures and/or are curious about Egan’s career.