Sunday 26 November 2017

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan   {Reviewed by STELLA}
Jennifer Egan’s new novel is daringly different from her previous novels as it is, at first glance, a standard work of historical fiction. From the opening pages, it will have you entranced. Egan's writing is elegant and measured. Opening in the late 1930s in New York, we are immediately drawn into the family life of the Irish Kerrigan family. Eddie Kerrigan is making a menial living running errands for an unsavoury Irish gangster and getting the odd job on the wharf, trying to earn enough in Depression-era America to keep his family housed and fed, and to provide medical care for his disabled youngest child, Lydia. Anna, his older daughter, is a feisty and charming companion, and when the book opens she is 12, accompanying her father on a visit to meet the mysterious Dexter Styles. Kerrigan is looking for a way out of his bind and sees Styles as an opportunity to change the course of his life. The relationship between Styles and Kerrigan runs a line throughout the novel, but not necessarily in a way the reader may have expected. After our initial introductions to this trio we are pushed on, and jump to the war years where we find Anna now 19 and working at the Naval yards as part of the war effort. Her father has disappeared - Anna believes he has abandoned the family because of the pressures of Lydia. Anna wants answers to her father’s disappearance and when a chance encounter with Dexter Styles occurs her determination leads her on a dangerous course of action. Spirited, intelligent and curious, Anna is a compelling character who lies at the centre of this novel, an anchor at the centre of several overlapping stories that build layers of history, meaning and emotion in her life and those around her. Both brutal - whether it is the gangster underworld, the powers of the sanctioned elite or the heirarchy of seamen - and tender - whether it is the relationships that parents have with their children, the love which springs out of a mistake or the sentimental ties that defy logic - Manhattan Beach wraps you into its arms and takes you inside the heads of Anna, Eddie and Dexter, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of each, alongside the power structures of the time, and the trials and tribulations of lives cast into the melee of economic and political turmoil. It’s a novel about what it meant to be female at this time of extraordinary change, what it meant to be on the legitimate side of society and how you had to behave if you were not. Alongside the personal and social histories, is a contemplation of the sea - of the edges that we all live on, the beaches and coastlines that define us, literally and metaphorically, and how these borders can be transcended, or how we can be free despite their power. And Egan draws us down into the depths, submerges us, just like Anna, fierce and determined, dons her diver's suit and enters the world below.

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