I haven’t read any of Jennifer Egan’s fiction before although I’ve always meant to get to her Pulitzer Prize winning “A Visit from the Good Squad” – especially after enjoying so much the varied selection of stories found in the “Best American Short Stories 2014” anthology which Egan guest edited that year. I’ve heard the way Egan handles time in her writing and her method of structuring a story is quite experimental. So it was somewhat surprising to discover that “Manhattan Beach” is constructed like a much more traditional historical novel, but one that is done so powerfully well it reads as a totally innovative and striking take on NYC life during WWII.
The story centres around the life of a young woman named Anna who works in the Naval Shipyard factories and her determination to become a diver working on the submerged hulls of ships and underwater pipelines. Running through the novel is the mystery of what happened to her father Ed who vanished from their family life leaving Anna and her mother Agnes alone to care for her severely physically and mentally disabled younger sister Lydia. She seeks answers about her father’s fate from Dexter Styles, an influential local gangster who, despite his power, finds himself precariously caught between a godfather-like crime boss whose network of schemes he oversees and his respectable high-society father-in-law. Anna and Dexter’s lives intersect and they separately reach a crisis point which requires them to radically alter their lives. It’s an atmospheric tale bouncing between sparkling star-studded gangster-run clubs to the plight of shipwrecked sailors to the murky bottom of Wallabout Bay. It’s as captivating in its portrayal of a working class single woman as it is in the way it shows larger American societal shifts amidst cataclysmic wartime losses.
Egan’s descriptive prose are so engaging. These include evocative observations about life working in a wartime factory, the social order of navy life and the complex workings of the criminal underworld. But there are also subtle portrayals about physical development. For instance, when Ed is an adolescent it’s remarked: “He’d turned twelve, tall and scrawny, fastened together with muscles like leather thongs.” It’s especially poignant when Egan shows Anna’s attempt to form an emotional connection with Lydia who is physically limited in how she can communicate. There are also beautifully profound moments when Anna finally dives underwater and experiences an entirely different world free from the complexity of life on the surface. It’s almost like the readers’ senses are adjusted alongside Anna’s so we can experience a vision of clouded water and the sounds inside her diver’s helmet.