Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan, Scribner, 2017, 433 pp
I have long been a fan of Jennifer Egan. She always does something different. This time she has written historical fiction with a noir/crime slant. Still her concerns remain intact. Those are crime and redemption as well as the consequences of decisions made and actions taken. Hovering over those concerns are her clear-eyed view of the way historical changes impact the lives of individuals.
Manhattan Beach opens with a scene featuring the three main characters of the book, Anna Kerrigan, her father Eddie, and nightclub owner Dexter Styles. It is some time after the stock market crash of 1929. Anna is eleven and worships her father, who often takes her with him when he makes his "business" calls. This time they call on the very rich Dexter Styles and Anna perceives a new nervousness in Eddie.
It is a startling opening chapter in which the reader is given only glimpses into what is going on because we see it primarily through her eleven-year-old eyes. Though she is intelligent, perceptive, and feisty, there is plenty she doesn't know about her father and about life.
Most of the rest of the novel is Anna's story with Eddie's and Dexter's woven in. We learn how Anna felt when her father disappeared and how she carved out a life for herself, away from her long suffering mother and her crippled sister, both of whom she also loves deeply.
By the time WWII begins she is working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard and still bucking anything that could hold her back. Against all odds she becomes a diver, working to maintain and repair ships for the war effort. She also becomes involved with Dexter Styles again and the stories of these three characters circle around each other.
I have read my share of historical fiction but Egan puts a new twist on the genre. The historical bits are woven in like the faintest thread in this tapestry of lives. In fact that thread is so faint that I sometimes felt adrift, but it did not matter because it is the characters and the ways their lives connect that make the novel.
Underlying all that happens to Anna, Eddie and Mr Styles is the world of organized crime, whether it is playing the stock market, doing the dirty work for union bosses, or marrying into a banking family. Anna is a shining beacon of a female. Not a moll, not a floozy, and not a basically nice but defeated woman like her mother, but the kind of female any self-respecting woman would like to be.
Everyone in this novel has secrets, including Anna, and all are crippled in some way because of them. As Anna finds her way back to the dad she had convinced herself she did not love anymore, all those secrets are revealed. Somehow Jennifer Egan makes the novel deeply sad and joyfully alive at the same time.
(Manhattan Beach is currently available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)