Corsair, hardback, 433 pages, €23.99
It’s been a while since Jennifer Egan’s last book — the Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad in early 2011. Manhattan Beach, though, is worth the wait. It’s outstanding: beautifully written, with the propulsive, driving force of a thriller.
And there’s a valid reason for this hiatus of almost seven years: the Irish-American’s latest is historical fiction, with its attendant demands of extensive research. Several pages of acknowledgements demonstrate just how extensive, as Egan salutes primary and secondary sources of information on 1930s and 1940s New York.
Normally I flinch a little, knowing a book has had so much prep work, especially one set in the past. Historical novelists are often too keen to tell you how hard they’ve worked, and report every last bit of information gleaned.
Egan, though, is far too talented a writer to fall into that trap, or venture anywhere near it. She wears her learning lightly, as the saying goes: this place and time are instantly made real, tangible.
We’re given a lot of background information, but in a subtle, unobtrusive way: it’s fitted into sentence and paragraph and overall story as seamlessly as if Egan were describing, say, an email being sent in a novel set in present day. She also avoids clumsy, overlong explanations of technical or old-timey terminology: they’re simply placed in the narrative and the reader works out meaning from context.
And her prose is wonderful — pretty much flawless, each sentence just right — with that Margaret Atwood-style trick of being exquisitely fashioned and, at the same time, incredibly smooth and easy to read. (Indeed, this could be an Atwood novel; with its wartime setting, it particularly reminded me of the Canadian’s Booker-winning Blind Assassin.)
What I especially like about Egan’s writing is that, unlike certain authors, she doesn’t use obscure or grandiose language to impress the reader. The words are simple; the magic is in how she reassembles them, with the thrilling alchemy of a true master.
The writer herself described Goon Squad as “Proust meets The Sopranos”, and Manhattan Beach has a similar feel of high art blending with pop culture: the latter in this case being noir-style detective stories. It’s less historical fiction, really, than homage to the great novels and films of the era: toughtalking dames, snappily dressed gangsters, themes of love and betrayal, melancholy and violence, staged against the bigger events of the Depression and World War II, and played out on the larger-than-life Fritz Lang-esque setting of NYC.
There’s a triptych of core characters: Eddie Kerrigan, genial “mick” and bagman for the Mob; Dexter Styles, charming and intelligent gang-boss (but not quite Capo di tutt’i capi) of said criminal organisation; and the main character, Eddie’s smart and strong-minded daughter Anna.
We first meet her as a 12-year-old, accompanying Eddie to a meeting with Styles. Seven years later, dad has disappeared, presumed dead. Meanwhile, Styles has an eye on quitting the rackets and legitimising his interests. Anna works in a naval yard, measuring parts for ships to be used in the war effort — but she sorely wants to become a diver.
Her battles against institutionalised chauvinism — while caring for handicapped sister Lydia and intermittently wondering what happened to her father — are weaved into Styles’ attempts to navigate a path out of this game that nobody ever leaves (not while still breathing, anyway).
Eventually, their paths cross, horrifying truths are revealed… and the ghost of Eddie Kerrigan may yet prove to be more metaphorical than actual.
The novel is psychologically and philosophically astute, and packed with fascinating colour and details about life in wartime, life on the sea — life in those grey, sombre decades that were paradoxically lit up by the firework flashes of global conflagration and dizzingly fast social change. What a time to be alive, and Egan renders it all with the simultaneous clarity of black-andwhite cinema and hallucinatory starburst of Technicolor.
At one point Anna muses, while reading an Ellery Queen detective story: “Finishing (a mystery novel) always left her disappointed, as if something about it had been wrong, an expectation unfulfilled.” Manhattan Beach fulfils all expectations — and surpasses them. Darragh McManus’s novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl