Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan Corsair Books October 3rd 2017
Egan’s novel the Goon Squad garnered both the Pulitzer and the National Book Circle awards and expectations for Manhattan Beach are understandably high.
Manhattan Beach is no Goon Squad and in a complete departure Egan turns to the genre of historical fiction.
Set in the depression years of New York, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan. Anna is 12 years old when we first meet her, accompanying her father, Eddie to the house of Dexter Styles, a nightclub owner with links to the New York criminal underworld. Her father has business that will have ramifications for Anna and her family. It is not until some years later that Anna will understand the true nature of their business.
As Anna reaches adulthood America enters World War II and Eddie simply disappears leaving Anna to support her disabled sister Lydia and her mother by working in the naval shipyards. By sheer will and determination Anna becomes a diver, mending warships, in what was a male dominated profession.
When Anna once again meets Dexter Styles in his nightclub, the course of her life changes forever and the mystery of her fathers disappearance is finally solved.
The scope of this novel is vast, covering the role of women as part of the war effort, the bravery of the Merchant Navy and the illegal spoils of war.
Anna herself, is tenacious, and determined and more than holds her own in a man’s world bucking the narrow minded view of women held by many of her generation. She has few friends but at the centre is the relationship with her father, a man she clearly adored, yet held responsible for the fate of her family. It is perhaps the love she has for him that pushes Anna to take great risks to solve the mystery of his disappearance.
The villain of the novel is undoubtedly Dexter Styles, a man seemingly in control, with a beautiful wife and adorable children. At times he comes across as a man of morals, disdainful of those men who have affairs, yet underneath he will think nothing of removing those who threaten his business interests, a man of contradictions.
Then you have Anna’s father, Eddie, a man with an instinct for survival, a man who clearly loved his family yet still left them. Eddie’s story was particularly good and the imagery conjured up by Egan’s writing of his time at sea was wonderfully evocative.
The attention to historical detail is fantastic and skilfully done without drowning out the story. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the naval shipyards and was amazed at the roles and jobs women undertook. Women still faced prejudice and belittlement, and had to fight hard to be recognised as equals to men. Anna is testament to that fight for equality and it is to Egan’s credit as a writer that she has written a novel that so wonderfully portrays their efforts.
The novel will not be to everyone’s liking as it does not have the originality of the Goon Squad but it is a novel that is certainly impressive in both its scope and narrative.
Thank you to Corsair Books for a proof copy to read and review.
About the author
Born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco, Jennifer Egan is the author of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. She written short stories for the New Yorker, Granta and numerous other publications.