Reviewed by Melanie Cutting
Jennifer Egan is an American novelist and short story writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 with her book, A Visit from the Goon Squad. This book also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, thus much was expected from her next book, Manhattan Beach, which appeared last fall. At 450 pages, the book’s gestation period of 6 years seems to have been devoted largely to researching the place (Brooklyn) and period (Second World War), and less time spent on putting together a fully engaging narrative.
Ms. Egan is a skilled and innovative writer whose previous works have garnered good press and good sales as well, so many of her readers were doubtless surprised—or disappointed—that this book is so traditional, mundane and disjointed. Termed a work of “historical fiction”, Manhattan Beach begins on the titular beach, a popular summertime destination for New Yorkers, where 11 year old Anna Kerrigan and her father, Eddie Kerrigan, have come to meet dashing underworld figure and night club owner Derek Styles. Anna is along for the ride to spend time with Derek’s 8 year old daughter, and to impress Derek with Eddie’s air of trustworthiness and domesticity. His goal is to convince Derek to hire him for collections and odd jobs. It is 1934, the height of the Depression, and Eddie’s has fallen on hard times. His regular jobs as a longshoreman have diminished. His wife, Agnes, a former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, helps out by doing piecework at home. They are not wealthy, but comfortable in their Brooklyn 6th floor walk-up apartment. Anna’s older sister, Lydia, is radiantly beautiful but severely handicapped with a degenerative condition which is never named, but prevents her from speaking or moving about with help. Although Anna and Agnes are devoted to Lydia and Eddie loves her unconditionally, he is clearly uncomfortable with her needs and disabilities, as well as the expenses required to properly care for her. In fact, it is the extra money he needs to purchase specialized equipment for her that has led to his seeking employment with the suave Dexter Styles.
Fast forward 8 years. The war has begun, and Eddie has disappeared with no explanation. Anna, 19, is now employed at the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard, with a year of college behind her. As was clear from the outset, Anna is bright and feisty; she is seriously underemployed at her job measuring miniscule components for the battleships under construction at the vast Yard. She is still living at home, but the family, including Eddie’s colourful sister Brianne (my personal favorite character, a classic 40s dame), are convinced that Eddie will not be returning. When Anna begins to notice the divers at the Navy Yard, she realizes that this is a job she would find far more interesting and lucrative than the one she currently holds. That there are no female divers heightens the challenge of getting into this profession, but Anna is nothing if not determined. The next several chapters detail her efforts in this regard. Needless to say, those in charge add extra burdens to the already daunting task of maneuvering into—and around in— the 330 pound diving outfit.
“Anna noticed a barge off the end of Dry Dock 1 that was different from the usual dredging barges… At one end, two men were helping a third into a heavy canvas suit, like squires fitting a knight for battle. Nearby, two more men turned cranks on a large upright rectangular box. ‘Say, what are they doing?’ Anna asked. She watched, spellbound, as the helpers lifted a spherical metal helmet over the diver’s head, encasing him within it. There was something primally familiar about the diving suit – as if from a dream or a myth.” Anna shows that she is made of especially stern stuff, finishes her training at the top of her class, and begins her professional life as a highly respected diver.
Meanwhile, on the classy side of town (i.e. Manhattan Beach), Dexter Styles is still married to the boss’s daughter and carrying on his nightclub and other less savor