Thursday, 15 February 2018

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

It is 1934 and eleven year old Anna Kerrigan is accompanying her father Eddie to Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn to see Mr Dexter Styles, a rich nightclub owner who might have some work for Eddie. Anna is not to know that the work is illegal, for Eddie is a bagman, delivering and collecting pay-offs to various criminals and mob figures. Times are hard: the Great Depression has changed peoples’ lives forever, and what was formerly unthinkable and to be avoided at all costs, has become the norm. Eddie’s family must be fed, and he will do what he must to keep them all together.

The meeting is successful, and until 1940 Eddie’s family live comfortably until Eddie suddenly disappears – but not without leaving a wad of cash and a separate bank account for his wife. Anna is stunned, miserable and furious at her father; she always thought she was his confidante – he could tell her anything, but obviously didn’t. He has betrayed her.

Now it is 1942: America is preparing for war after the horror attack on Pearl Harbor; all the men are joining up and women are recruited to do their jobs for the ‘duration of hostilities’. Anna, now nineteen and breathing the heady air of enormous change gets a job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, manufacturing small parts for machinery for the engine rooms of battle ships. It is intoxicating to think that her efforts, small as they are, will have a part in winning the war – because America WILL win the war: of this there is no doubt. And when she sees commercial divers descending the depths to weld repairs on the huge ships in port, she is more excited than ever: that is a REAL job, embodying skill, risk, dexterity – and strength. Not a job for a woman, but Anna has already suffered enough adversity and disappointment in her short life to fight to the last breath for this, and her eventual success opens up a new world only made possible by the terrible fact of war.

A chance meeting at one of his nightclubs reintroduces Anna to Dexter Styles, still as rich and mysterious as ever. Dexter works for the Mob, but he has also married into Old Money to the extent that he feels secure and untouchable; no Mob figure would dare to harm the son-in-law of a retired Admiral, a New York Brahmin of such repute that his advice is sought by Presidents. Dexter is The Man: he revels being the bridge between two worlds. He also knows what happened to Anna’s father, and it is her mission to make him reveal his secrets.

Ms Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her wonderful book ‘Welcome to the Goon Squad’ (see 2011 review below). The quality of her writing is as high as ever – the sinking of a merchant ship by U-boats and the consequent scramble for survival on rafts and lifeboats was a literary milestone for me; I have never felt so present, so involved in that hapless voyage, and so glad when some of the wonderful characters survived.

Once again, huge talent, impeccable research and a trio of unforgettable protagonists ensures that Ms Egan will remain at the forefront of contemporary literary fiction. This is another great book.


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