Manhattan Beach: Jennifer Egan

Published by Scribner, 2017, 448 pages.

New York, 1934. Eddie takes his 11-year-old daughter Anna to a meeting with Dexter Styles, a gangster who has married the daughter of a well-known New York senator. As they drive up to Styles’s house by the beach, Anna notices that her father is nervous, something that is unusual for him.

Eddie used to be a successful stockbroker but lost his money during the crash of 1929. Now he works as a bagman: “a nobody of the highest order”. He was the “sap who ferried something (money, of course, but it wasn’t his business to know) between men who should not rightly associate.” 

And then one day, Eddie disappears, leaving behind Anna, her disabled sister Lydia, and her mother. There was no body found, so it was not clear if he left of his own free will or was killed.

New York, 1941. The world is caught up in the Second World War, and Anna is working at the Naval Yard. Most of the men have gone to fight, leaving their jobs open to women. Anna is bored with her job that involves examining small parts of ships and decides to train as a diver.

She walks into a world where women are not welcome. A diver’s job involves going underwater to repair ships, especially those going to war. The man running the team is not happy about having her there and does not believe she will survive the training. But once Anna puts her mind to something, she is not easily daunted, and fights to get the respect she deserves as someone who is as capable—if not more—than the men she dives with.

Anna is determined to find out what happened to her father. She is convinced that Dexter Styles had something to do with his disappearance. When she discovers that one of the clubs she goes to is owned by Styles, she tries to get friendly with him in the hope that he will finally be able to clear up the mystery. But their meeting has consequences that neither could have foreseen.

The most interesting thing about Manhattan Beach is the way it captures New York in the 1930s and 1940s: a time of change, of women moving into the foreground. Jennifer Egan has obviously done a lot of research: you get a real feel for the city, especially the waterfront. I found the parts on diving particularly interesting: both the work itself and Anna’s fight to establish herself in what was until then a man’s world.

The sea is a recurring motif through the book. It dominates Anna’s life: a living force that can wreak havoc but can also uplift the spirit. Lydia’s one moment of real joy comes when Anna takes her to the seaside.

Anna is the centre of the story: when it moves away from her and her world, it loses something. There is a section at the end about a shipwreck which I felt could have been much shorter. But I enjoyed being transported to a different time, a time when women’s lives were beginning to open up, and when they were fighting for things that most of us can now take for granted.

Buy from UK / USA

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