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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.

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Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently are the ways prejudice is portrayed in novels and the degree to which we can distinguish a character’s perspective from the authorial voice. There are several scenes where uncomfortable remarks are made about different immigrant communities in NYC, but it was clear that these are mediated through the perspective of Dexter and are bound with this character’s social prejudices. It becomes even more evident that this is the case when Dexter at one point comes to interact with Lydia and he refers to her only as “the cripple.” This shows how he really doesn’t consider her an individual and can’t see past her disability or consider her humanity. It’s all the more tragic when Ed recalls spending time with a young Lydia and the acute shame and disgust he feels towards his daughter’s condition. Egan also writes compellingly about the complex commanding order of shipmates and how traditional social orders amongst different racial groups are scrambled in this unique environment.

Like all great historical fiction, this novel has something to say about the world we’re living in right now. When Dexter’s father-in-law is speculating about America’s position in the global community he surmises “our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible.” Today, consumerism has run rampant and personal debt threatens to throw us all into a tailspin again at any moment while stripping the environment down to the bone. It’s interesting to consider the ways in which America’s global influence could have been different after the war if the forces in power were motivated by something other than profit.

“Manhattan Beach” was overall a joy to read and it includes a sassy, free-thinking aunt named Brianne who ultimately became my favourite character.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJennifer Egan
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Whenever I read a description of another new novel dealing with The Holocaust I feel a little twinge of uncertainty. Despite being one of the most horrific acts of genocide in the past century it’s a subject that’s been covered in countless novels. Is there anything new to say about this atrocity? Of course there is. Many novels from Audrey Magee’s “The Undertaking” to Ben Fergusson’s “The Spring of Kasper Meier” have proven this to me. But never has a novel I’ve read about this period of history felt more relevant and close-to-home than Rachel Seiffert’s new novel “A Boy in Winter.” I’m conscious that this has a lot to do with the current politics of our world, but I truly recognized in this story situations and patterns of behaviour that feel very near. Seiffert has fictionally dealt with this era before in her debut book “The Dark Room” which is composed of three novellas connected to the war and set in Germany. This new book is set in a small village in the Ukraine over a period of a few days in late 1941 when the Nazis come marching through “cleansing” the community of its Jewish population. It’s stunningly told and it’s a devastating story, but it also speaks so powerfully about the world we live in now.

Seiffert has the most unique and powerful way of conveying the inner sense of a character’s emotions using only external descriptions. It’s something she did so expertly in her previous novel “The Walk Home” (which was one of my favourite books of 2014) and she does it again in this new novel with an adolescent Jewish boy named Yankel. Different sections of the book focus on different characters, but the author doesn’t often shine a spotlight on Yankel. Instead, we get a sense of him through other characters such as his father who has been put in a hellish temporary holding cell by the Nazis or a young woman Yasia who takes in Yankel and his younger brother. We get descriptions of the way Yankel carries himself, his stance or the movement of his eyes, but even though the reader is not often keyed into what he’s thinking we get a real emotional understanding of him from the author’s evocative external descriptions. Seiffert does this in a way which is powerful and quite unique. The arc of his story and the semi-tragic transformation he goes through in order to survive is brilliantly told.

This is an incredibly beautiful and impactful novel, but a slight problem I had with it is an instance where a certain character who is conscripted into the Nazi forces leads the reader through the way that Jewish people were processed. There’s nothing wrong with Seiffert’s descriptions of these scenes and their impact is devastating, but it clearly felt like his character was being used simply as a device to show what the author wanted to show rather than what his character would naturally encounter. However, a striking thing about this section is the way she describes the Nazis basically forcing each other to drink while they conduct their brutal and horrific executions. It gave a powerful sense of the way many of these soldiers had to use alcohol to deaden their humanity in order to perform the atrocious duties they were ordered to perform.

The central question of this novel asks what you would do if you were faced with the choice of following the evil will of an oppressive government or being severely punished for refusing to participate. It prompts you to ask yourself what you would do if neutrality wasn’t an option. Seiffert shows the complexity of this question through a number of different characters including non-Jewish Ukranians and a German engineer who takes a remote position in the army because he wants to avoid this moral dilemma but finds himself forced to make a horrific choice. The lines between an individual’s right and wrong become blurred when they are forced to ask themselves: “where was the wrong in staying alive?” It’s a haunting question.

I read this novel as part of a mini-book group I’ve formed with the writers Antonia Honeywell and Claire Fuller. We discussed it over lunch and had a fascinating conversation, but it’s quite special in that it’s the first book (out of the three we’ve read together so far including “The Underground Railroad” and “Mothering Sunday”) that all three of us were overwhelmingly positive about. Antonia and Claire are astute critics so the fact they both liked this novel so much is high praise! Rachel Seiffert is an incredibly talented writer and I find her writing moving in a way that is hard to describe. But it’s safe to say I’d recommend that everyone should read this timely historical novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Seiffert
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I was surprised and intrigued to see that the feminist and humanitarian Natasha Walter who previously only wrote nonfiction has published her first novel. The blurb for “A Quiet Life” explains how it's about a female spy during WWII and I wasn’t sure how a thrilling plot like this would work alongside the author’s compelling ideas about feminism. As it turns out, the main character Laura is not a feminist or especially an intellectual. She doesn’t become a political subversive and spy delivering crucial government secrets to an underground communist network for the Soviet Union because she has particularly high ideals. Rather, she takes on this highly dangerous and controversial work because she’s influenced by a passionate female friend and a man she falls in love with. However, the way in which Walter captures the subtlety of Laura’s psychology, the prevailing ideologies/social attitudes of the era and the crisis of an individual’s political consciousness during times of international conflict is absolutely compelling. It makes Laura a more dynamic subject and her story more engagingly complex than if Walter had chosen to write a whole novel about Florence, Laura’s ardent communist friend. Reading “A Quiet Life” felt to me like reading a novel by Doris Lessing for the way it wholly commits to faithfully representing Laura’s experience in times of political turbulence.

Laura moves to England at the start of 1939 to visit relatives, but really she is trying to escape the confines of her suffocating and damaging family life in the States. On the boat across the Atlantic she meets two people who will affect the rest of her life in crucial ways. She finds it challenging to learn how to live amongst the privilege, manners and social preoccupations of her affluent English relatives. But this well ordered world is in the midst of being thrown into chaos as time progresses and German bombs fall over London. Despite the danger, Laura refuses to return to America and embarks on a course of love and political intrigue which radically destabilizes her future. There are certainly gripping moments as questions arise about who Laura can really trust and if her surreptitious activities will be caught out, but this is more a novel about the tension between her complicity with the social/political structures around her and her rebellion against them.

There is a clear awareness of the limitations imposed upon women in this time period. Laura is highly conscious of how she presents herself physically and acts socially as she “had been brought up into the certain knowledge that a woman’s body and voice were always potential sources of shame, that only by intense scrutiny and control could one become acceptable.” There is an attention to detail for how Laura uses her sexuality to both meld into her social milieu and manipulate people when needed. At other times there is a frustration for how little women are allowed to participate in social engagements and are seen as only decorative: “The women provided the colour between the black and white of the men’s tuxedos, but that was all they seemed to be there for; these flashes – green, scarlet, blush and blue – between the black coats.” Laura lived through a difficult abusive childhood and is aware of how little she is intellectually valued amongst men. These conflicts play into the complex reasons why she engages in acts of espionage.

Melinda Maclean who acted as a spy for the Soviet Union as did her husband Donald Maclean, a British diplomat. 

Melinda Maclean who acted as a spy for the Soviet Union as did her husband Donald Maclean, a British diplomat. 

It really surprised me how much I personally connected with Laura. She feels distanced from her American upbringing, but she's never able to fully integrate into exclusive social groups in England. Having moved from America to the UK many years ago I found this to be very relatable and wholly believable. There are subtleties in our national differences which can only be felt from prolonged exposure to both cultures and Walter captures these very well. There are also striking moments where Laura overhears what people say about her which collapse the English social niceties and reveal how people really feel about her.

The dilemma for Laura between living a comfortable (quiet) life and making a real difference is palpable throughout. Just what a quiet life means is shown in its full complexity over the course of the novel. There is a life of privilege sheltered from the protests and struggles of people outside that circumscribed world, there is the potential quiet life a couple can find after years of difficult work, alcoholism and conflicts in the relationship have worn them down and there is a quiet life which is disengaged from the politics of the time – a life of simply getting by. Walter creatively and engagingly explores these dilemmas within the story giving a heartfelt account of Laura's struggle to determine what sort of life she really wants. There are also hints of a wholly other life Laura could have had where she might have developed and expressed herself artistically if only she'd come of age in a quiet peaceful time outside of war.

This is an utterly fascinating novel which gives an entirely new perspective of the WWII time period. It's a wholly immersive and wonderful read about a compelling character inspired by the real life of a woman named Melinda Maclean who was suspected (but never proven) to be a Soviet spy. 

Here's a brief interview with Natasha Walter about her inspiration for writing the novel: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/12/natasha-walter-a-quiet-life-cambridge-spies-fiction

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNatasha Walter
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When reading novels about WWII you are usually shown the perspective of women and men from countries involved in fighting the conflict. However, I haven’t come across many representations of countries that maintained neutrality. So I’ve found it fascinating reading two recent novels which do this: Rose Tremain’s novel “The Gustav Sonata” which portrays the long term consequences for a Swiss officer and his family drawn into a serious moral conflict and Dermot Bolger’s new novel “The Lonely Sea and Sky” which is based on a historical incident where a small Irish ship chose to save 168 shipwrecked German sailors in 1943. The question of whether to save these men from drowning is more difficult than it first appears: some German forces sank Irish vessels (frequently as target practice) despite their nation's neutrality and there was also the risk that the Germans might take control of the Irish ship once they had boarded and outnumbered the seamen. Their country might have been neutral, but they lived in a world at war. The novel is narrated from the perspective of a 14 year old Irish boy named Jack who joins the crew of a shipping vessel called the Kerlogue. He needs to mature quickly for a hard life at sea and he's confronted with many moral dilemmas posed in this dramatic journey. Bolger creates a personal, heartrending and atmospheric tale of the lives of these Irish sailors during a period of great international conflict.

Jack recently lost his father who was also a sailor; he never returned from his last ill-fated expedition. It’s left his mother and multiple siblings on the brink of starvation. Even though he is technically underage, he finagles his way into joining this shipping vessel’s crew. Jack’s discovery process along his first voyage at sea has many layers. The difficulty of sailing is vividly created as Jack becomes accustomed to seasickness, hard duties and navigating the social structure of a tightly compressed group of men. There is a hierarchy of rank which must be respected and sailors must tread carefully to not enquire too much about any sailor’s problems – such as a particularly troubled man named Mr Walton. Rather than neglecting each other’s emotional wellbeing this is seen as a sign of respect. Since some of the crew sailed with his father, it’s touching how Jack discovers parts of what was his father’s daily life and character which were previously unknown to him.

Jack is also introduced to foreign cultures and attitudes in the Welsh and Portuguese ports where they stop for cargo or customs inspections. He’s led a very sheltered existence up until this point in his small Irish town of Wexford which was “dominated not by fear of an all-seeing God but by a terror that neighbours might think you lacked respectability.” Out in the world he’s free to make his own choices away from the prying eyes of familiars. He has a particularly striking encounter in Lisbon with a Czechoslovakian Jewish woman named Katerina who has eluded capture and has improvised a difficult new life for herself. Bolger writes with great sensitivity and detail about Katerina’s complex psychology and the conflict and hardship she faces. Her presence in Jack's mind also gives Jack more complex opinions when faced with the moral challenges ahead.

"The Fastnet Lighthouse, though crews on cargo ships call it the Lonely Rock... This is the last bit of Ireland emigrants glimpse when they're America bound."

"The Fastnet Lighthouse, though crews on cargo ships call it the Lonely Rock... This is the last bit of Ireland emigrants glimpse when they're America bound."

The novel shows that rather than existing wholly outside the conflict, “neutral” nations were forced to make compromises or concede in certain respects to German or Allied forces. The cook who Jack works for on the ship remarks at one point “Ireland is the only neutral country gaining nothing from this war,’ he said. ‘The Portuguese happily trade with the British and, at the same time, they flog tungsten to the Nazis to armour-plate their tanks. The Swedes supply the Germans with iron ore and Swiss banks can barely close their vaults, they’re so crammed with looted Nazi gold.” Although these other nations clearly suffered hardships and strains during the war which was detrimental to their economies and people, it's interesting to think about the precarious position of neutrality and how some people might have used the war to their benefit. It's also interesting to learn how the IRA briefly considered siding with Hitler's Germany in the hopes of creating a re-united Irish nation with the north.

More than any political arguments or issues of allegiance, what comes through in the novel is the sailors' essential humanity. They see themselves in a kind of brotherhood with any man who sails at sea because the living is so difficult and fraught with danger. Faced with drowning men, they couldn't allow sailors to perish whether they were soldiers that posed a threat to them or not. The consequences of rescuing them may have impacted the crew of the Kerlogue negatively: it ostracised them from the British as their priority was getting them to the nearest port in Ireland for medical attention and from the Germans for not returning their men. It also led the crew to losing their cargo and any profit they'd make from their long journey – something they could ill afford to do while living on the brink of poverty. However, their action has assured these brave sailors a heroic place in history as having done the right thing in an extremely difficult time. Dermot Bolger has done them justice in producing such a finely crafted and extremely readable tale which brings their story to life.