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A big, old-fashioned, absorbing historical narrative – America in Depression and At War

Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach follows the story of two different tranches of the American immigrant experience, and is set during the Depression and the Second World War.

There are 3 stories followed, which interlink with each other through Anna’s story. At the start of the novel Anna Kerrigan is nearly 12, a young girl idolising her father, and close to her mother and her sick sister. Father Eddie struggles, as so many working men did, at this time, to make a living. He has lost much in the crash and is now working as a kind of muscle for a longshoreman union official. Keeping the family together, particularly with the medical needs of Anna’s sister Lydia, is not easy.

Eddie has decided to take a chance on getting more lucrative work – but this must come at a price, as he intends to offer his expertise to Dexter Styles, a man with mob connections, who has hidden his Italian background, and is riding high in society, happily married. The family he has married into is old money, established class. Everyone knows he is somehow connected, still to ‘a shadow government, a shadow country..A tribe. A clan’ He is though someone who is good at subterfuge, though there are plenty of rumours about him, and as long as no one looks too closely at the source of his wealth, and is just happy enough with that wealth, he, and they, will get along fine.

Eddie has taken Anna along to his job ‘interview’ with Dexter, as knowing something about a man’s family gives him a certain edge and information. And Eddie will be offered employment

Egan then takes a forward jump, and we, like Anna, are in the position of ‘something happened’ – but we don’t quite know what. All we know is that at some point, some years ago, Eddie disappeared. Anna still holds a memory of the mysterious Mr Styles, and the glamour of his house, on that day Eddie took her along. It is now Anna’s job to keep the family together. America is now at war. War has created opportunities for young women, working in fields never open to them before. Anna is now one of a female workforce employed in Brooklyn’s Naval Yard, measuring and inspecting tiny parts for battleships. She has a better dream – the desire to be a diver, to inspect and repair vessels underwater.

This whole section of Anna’s story, her struggle to work in an area thought unsuitable for a woman, was particularly fascinating.

There is also a more conventional story beginning – a chance encounter between Anna and Styles in a nightclub – she recognises him, but he has no idea who she is, especially as when she introduces herself she gives a false last name – a story which will be in part a detective story, and in part a love story. Anna wants to find out the truth about her father’s disappearance, and the mysterious Mr Styles is a sensible place to start

Anna’s story, Dexter’s story – and also the story of Eddie’s disappearance. And it is also the story of capital, labour, and the American Dream

I see the rise of this country to a height no country has occupied, ever….Not the Romans. Not the Carolingians, Not Genghis Khan or the Tatars or Napoleon’s France….How is that possible you ask. Because 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

High money and low money, muscle, graft, honest labour and labour less honest, corruption, class, race and sexual prejudice – it’s a big canvas.

I did not get to read Egan’s Pulitzer, A Visit From The Goon Squad (though I am minded to, now) That was, I understand, a far more experimental/unusual structure. This is not, though we do have the 3 voices, and the 3 stories, but the structure is a conventional narrative. I found it a fascinating read, particularly because I am drawn to books which engage with describing hard physical work – stuff of craft and muscle.

I could not resist adding this YouTube first part upload of John Adams’ magnificent Harmonielehre, a version conducted by Simon Rattle. The spur to its composition was the idea of a great tanker rising through the air. As I read the physicality of the Naval Yard workplace sections, Adam’s amazing piece, with its incredible opening, was in my mind’s ear

I received this as an ARC from the publisher, Simon and Schuster, via Netgalley. Gratefully.

It will be published on October 3rd

Manhattan Beach Amazon UK
Manhattan Beach Amazon USA