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Book Review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan Beach is an historical novel set during the Great Depression in Brooklyn, New York. It starts with Anna Kerrigan–then only twelve years old–accompanying her father to visit a business associate, Dexter Styles. Zoom forward eight years and WWII has broken out: Anna’s father has disappeared, her invalid sister dies and her mother moves away. Anna is left alone, working at the navy yard as the first and only female diver, repairing American war ships. A chance re-encounter with Dexter leads her to find out more about her father, why he might have been murdered and ultimately more about herself.

I love this book. It is beautifully and concisely written, every word earning a right to be on the page. The narrative and dialogue are contemporary and accessible, but the images of New York slums, the clubs, cafés and naval yard transport the reader back in time to a bustling city of working lives, organised crime and class divides.

It is the sea, not the city that is central to the book and haunts the three main characters – Anna, her father Eddie and Dexter. And while the battles of WWII may be thousands of miles across the Atlantic, the war plays a more dominant role in their lives as their stories progress. Even the book has an ebb and flow feel to it, with people coming and going like the ocean tide. There’s some wonderful foreshadowing “…deeper–deeper still–until she seemed there was no place further she could go. But somehow there always was. She had never reached the bottom.” A reference to Anna’s family relationships but ultimately to a deep ocean dive that has long lasting consequences.

My only criticism would be the placement of Eddie’s life at sea. It is introduced at a time when the novel is building up to a climax and–while an essential part of the story–slows down the book a smidgen. It’s a small point and doesn’t take much away from what is a very well thought out story. If you’re interested in family dynamics (and secrets) over time; or grey areas of good versus evil; or early twentieth century historical fiction, then Manhattan Beach is a must read. You will not be disappointed.

I’ll end with a quote describing Anna’s discovery of diving, but is a metaphor for the discoveries made throughout the entire book.

“A purely tactile realm that seemed to exist outside the rest of life. It was like pushing through a wall and finding a hidden chamber just beyond it.”

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