MANHATTAN BEACH by Jennifer Egan
Corsair ISBN: 978 1 4721 8087 5
Set in New York, Manhattan Beach opens with eleven-year-old Anna, accompanying her father to a meeting. We gather that Eddie Kerrigan is a go-between, moving easily between the mobsters and the elite of New York, picking up packages, handing them on. A minor player in the corrupt doings of the city, greasing the palms that grease the wheels that keep the machinery running smoothly. Anna is pert, precocious and utterly captivating. She notices her father’s apprehension at meeting his new business acquaintance, the rich and charismatic Dexter Styles. But when her father vanishes, she assumes he has abandoned their little family, and it is not until a chance encounter with Mr Styles many years later that she begins to question her father’s disappearance.
Though described as an historical novel, Manhattan Beach is much more. In fact, there are enough gangsters and smart-talking women to give the story a noirish feel, and then there are coming of age elements, and romantic interludes, too. But this novel transcends narrow definitions. Following the lives of the Kerrigans and their two daughters – the lovely, but devastatingly disabled Lydia, and intelligent and fiercely independent Anna – it takes us from the Great Depression through to the end of World War II. A pivotal time, world-wide, and the bigger story – a social history and cultural commentary of life between the wars – is told compellingly by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Jennifer Egan. Her evocation of the New York waterfront is vivid and fresh, and patriarchal attitudes towards women are exposed for what they are: prejudice, and thinly disguised resentment. I seethed with Anna at every check, insult and small-minded rejection, and my spirit soared with hers as she overcame each and every one to become the first female diver.
Egan’s beautiful storytelling and dry wit transforms what might otherwise be a conventional storyline and takes it to a sublime level, leading us on a journey that is surprising, exciting, elating, sometimes terrifying, and entirely satisfying.