This is a tale of loss, rejection and reconciliation set in New York City during the Second World War. It spans several of New York’s worlds: the Navy, the Mob, organised labour and the Upper East Side. The boundaries of these worlds become progressively blurred and overlapped. The sea, tidal rivers and coastal waters around New York are ever-present, inspiring or menacing, at times almost a character in the novel.
This is Jennifer Egan’s first essay in historical fiction – her last novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction – but she convincingly recreates the ambience of wartime New York. The novel’s heroine, Anna Kerrigan, is a determined young woman who overcomes rampant prejudice to qualify as a Navy diver, an elite job hitherto the exclusive preserve of men. She also flouts the conventions of the time by having a baby out of wedlock, although, tellingly, she does concoct a respectable cover story to explain its existence.
Egan brings to life the world of the Mob, its hierarchy, its shifting loyalties, its greed, its violence and its venal immorality. Manhattan Beach illustrates, too, the extent of the Mob’s influence on New York life at that time. The novel’s anti-hero, mobster Dexter Styles, displays all the bogus respectability, craven deference to power and willingness to resort to violence which is so characteristic of organised crime.
The most absorbing parts of the novel are the diving sequences. Egan captures brilliantly the careful, courageous deliberation of the divers and the claustrophobic menace and occasional exhilaration of the dives themselves. Somehow, the underwater scenes draw the reader into the story, tightening their eardrums and making it all that much more real.
The chapters dealing with the voyage and sinking of the Liberty Ship, Elizabeth Seaman, are grippingly exciting, taut with the instinct for self-preservation. Manhattan Beach is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, convincingly detailed, cleverly structured and engagingly written. Corsair, £16.99