Jennifer Egan, Little, Brown Book Group, 2017, ISBN 9 781 4721 5090 5, 512pp
I bought this book as an ebook so the I could enjoy it on my recent long-haul flight to Éire. It is rare indeed that one reads a book to that deserves unqualified praise. This is such a book: at 512 pages it’s a long book but it is beautifully written with a storyline that draws you in. Jennifer Egan is an American novelist who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her book A Visit from the Goon Squad. The New York Times describes her as “a refreshingly unclassifiable novelist” and this may well be so as A Visit from the Goon Squad is very different to Manhattan Beach. The former is almost a collection of short stories that can be read separately or in sequence. Manhattan Beach is a single book. She has said that “the linear is the weird scourge of writing prose.” What A Visit from the Goon Squad and Manhattan Beach have in common is that they are not linear.
This is an historical novel and at its centre is its heroine Anna Kerrigan. The novel opens with her as an 11 year old accompanying her father, Eddie, as he visits a mobster called Dexter Styles. Eddie has fallen on hard times during the depression: he had a Duesenberg that Dexter now owns but which he still drives. Anna idolises her father who has been driven to support his family, and in particular Anna’s invalid sister Lydia, by being part of the underworld. Anna knows none of this. Dexter and Eddie are the other two main characters, although Eddie does not reappear until much later in the book. The novel skips forward to the early years of the Second World War where we find Anna working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We learn that her father disappeared leaving sufficient money for Anna, her sister Lydia and het mother, to live on. She is not allowed to know the purpose of the dull and repetitive work in which she is engaged. This is not enough for Anna who is a feisty character. Through force of personality and of not saying no she becomes the only female diver in the Navy yard.
Egan describes very well the easy-going discrimination of the time against women yet this is not the central purpose of the book. Egan describes a woman who knows what she wants and is prepared to strive to achieve it. And, ultimately, that is about discovering what happened to make her father disappear. To do this she manages to befriend Dexter. Although he makes his living from criminal activities he has married into old money. She gets to know Dexter because she is sure that he knows what happened to her father who, she is convinced, is dead. He is not dead and he is eventually reunited, though in tricky circumstances, with Anna. It is difficult to say whether Anna seduces Dexter or whether it is the other way round. Whichever way it is, the consequences are wrapped up in the reappearance of her father.
This book is a family drama, a noir romance, and a wartime adventure. It seems to be well-researched. There are details like Dexter’s car: his Cadillac is a Series 62, a model that was produced from 1940. Egan has clearly investigated the technicalness of diving in a day when a diving suit weighed 200 pounds. But above all it is a magnificent read and it’s a read to savour rather than to race through.