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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Book review: Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach tells genuine tale of a father and daughter

The weight of history hangs heavy on a beautiful, yet overly detailed, comeback

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan published by Corsair. Courtesy Little Brown
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan published by Corsair. Courtesy Little Brown

Manhattan Beach begins during the Great Depression. It is 1934 and men across the United States are struggling to feed their families. In Brooklyn, Eddie Kerrigan works as a “bagman” for local kingpin Dexter Styles – he collects and moves money from and in between Dexter’s various business concerns. The novel takes its name from a stretch of beach west of Coney Island, where Dexter lives with his wife, twin boys and daughter, the legitimate face he shows to the world: “No man visited Dexter’s home without bringing his family.” In the opening chapter, Kerrigan and his 12-year-old daughter Anna pay the Styles family a visit – the memory of which lingers in Anna’s mind long after the day itself draws to a close.

Before we know it, Kerrigan has disappeared – or been disappeared; at this stage, his fate remains murky. Seven years have passed; war is raging, and 19-year-old Anna is working in Brooklyn’s Naval Yard, supporting her mother and disabled sister, the beautiful but “damaged” Lydia. One day, during her lunch, transfixed by the figure of a diver submerging himself beneath the waves – his job is to repair the hulls of damaged ships – Anna feels “a seismic rearrangement within herself. It was clear to her now she had always wanted to be a diver, to walk along the bottom of the sea”.

There is something almost too familiar, too predictable, about this story of a plucky young woman – “You’re full of spirit,” says her supervisor – trying to make it in a man’s world. It means opportunities aplenty for all manner of sexism and chauvinism; but also for Anna to prove her superiors wrong. Which is a relief all round, because the novel’s most-consuming passages are those describing her underwater exploits. In these, there is a stillness and concentration to Egan’s prose that drowns out what is otherwise far too often a cacophony of period detail.

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This is not a historical novel that wears the specifics of its era lightly. As itemised in the acknowledgements, Egan undertook years of extensive, impressive research; all of which, it seems, is included. No character simply drives a car; they drive “a ’28 Duesenberg Model J, Niagara blue, evidence both of fine taste and of bright prospects before the crash”. Anna turns on the radio and we’re treated to a precise list of the singers on air; “Later, she opened her Ellery Queen.”

In a rare occasion of usefulness, mansplaining serves Egan’s desire to detail and elucidate, Dexter lecturing Anna on the precise models of the boats that they can see riding the waves from his back porch. Then there are moments that are downright clumsy: “Mama won’t let me join the Ten Percent Club,” Anna complains to her aunt. “She’s speaking War,” her aunt replies, “I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with that tongue” – cue explanation. Or later, when two sailors banter as their ship heads out to sea: “I’ll sure miss Frisco,” says one to the other. “So shall I,” comes the other’s reply before he adds, “Although it turns out only sailors call it Frisco.”

Meanwhile, one evening while Anna is getting ready for a night out, we get this awkward addition: “In her apartment, she ran a bath. Nell had told her about department stores where girls could go after work to bathe and be styled and made up for their dates.”

One understands the temptation to squeeze in every one of these fascinating nuggets of information, but those that don’t serve the narrative are glaringly surplus to requirements, the result of which is that, underneath this deluge, Egan’s story often struggles to breathe.

Hidden within, however, is a genuinely affecting tale about a father and daughter. Anna learning to dive, trussed up in her archaic 200-pound suit, all manner of dangers lurking in the briny depths, becomes a metaphor for the other struggle in her life: that of attempting to discover the truth behind her father’s mysterious desertion of his family, an investigation fraught with its own hazards.

So, too, the prose is awash with delicate aquatic imagery – Dexter’s daughter’s curiosity is described as “a well whose waterline often seemed a long way down. But at the word ‘help’, Dexter heard a splash”; Anna looking alluring dressed in ocean “green”; a man who “stowed away” his old life.

During these moments, there is an elegant ebb and flow that is at odds with more cumbersome features. The latter, all too often unfortunately, wins out.