Jennifer Egan and her Time Capsule
One of the primary attractions of literature is that it can transport us into any time and place much more effectively than other mediums. While we can get engrossed into a movie or a video game, nothing stimulates our imaginative gray cells like ink skillfully spread on paper. Many authors use this strength of literature to their advantage, taking us into specific periods and recreating them as faithfully as possible, effectively preserving a past in danger of being lost. Jennifer Egan is one such author, and in her novel Manhattan Beach she takes us to a precise period in time: the docks of Brooklyn during the Second World War.
The story itself is a long-spanning one, but I shall endeavor to encapsulate it concisely. The events begin as we are presented with a twelve year-old Anna Kerrigan, with a fascination for the sea beyond her house and a mystery shared by her father with his friend, Dexter Styles. A few years later, Anna’s father has vanished and the country has entered the Second World War. With many of the men gone to war, she works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard and becomes the first female diver in American history, an extremely dangerous and exclusive occupation. The faithful night comes when Anna bumps into Dexter Styles at a nightclub, and no longer a little girl, she becomes intent on trying to understand her father’s life and the secrets he may have been keeping with him. In a world ruled by mobsters and weathered sailors, Anna is trying to make sense of her life and the decisions her father has made, all while spearheading the eventual reforms that would come for women after the end of the war.
An Extraordinary Recreation
Since we’re looking at a historical novel here, I believe it’s important to address its accuracy and the amount of research that went into it before anything else… and if I had to choose this novel’s greatest strength, it would be it’s historical accuracy. Jennifer Egan has without a doubt dedicated countless hours to gathering information on a specific location in time and space and regales in recreating it down to the tiniest details. She describes the setting, the people, their attitudes, the dynamics and political climate with such gusto that we can’t help but feel ourselves transported back in time, almost as if we’ve fallen straight into a Noir movie.
We also learn a great deal about the diving profession as we follow Anna through her training and various assignments and get to witness the various changes brought about for women by the war. In a certain sense, it feels like this is a history book about the transformative effects of the Second World War on American society… which is to say, in some cases it feels like the historical aspect takes precedence over the “fiction” part. As a result, I have to admit that the pace of the novel suffers in certain cases and always remains at a slower, comfortable and steady pace. While personally that doesn’t bother me at all, I can imagine slightly less patient readers getting a bit bored.
A Path to Redemption
If we take a look at the story itself it actually has quite a bit to offer. To begin with, Anna Kerrigan, arguably the heart and soul of the story, makes for a very likeable and relatable narrator, having grown through various hardships, such as a disappearing father and a crippled younger sister. We get to know her well enough that her desires, motivations and decisions feel real and explicable; her quest to become the first female diver truly felt like it had a lot of weight behind it.
With that being said, it felt like Egan spent a bit too much time developing side characters whom ultimately never really came into play or impacted the story, and that was time which could have been spent on some of the other main characters, such as Dexter for example. Additionally, the father himself, Eddie Kerrigan, didn’t make an appearance until somewhere around the second half, at which point the focus was changed completely on him for a certain time, a decision that felt quite abrupt to say the least. It almost felt like Egan wasn’t sure who she wanted to focus on at certain times.
The theme of redemption is quite strong throughout the book, following the three protagonists closely wherever they go. Each one of them had made decisions in their lives that they had come to regret and are looking for ways to atone for the harm they may have caused. Slowly but surely, this quest for personal transformation and salvation takes precedence over the mystery Anna is trying to untangle, and takes us to a satisfying ending that remains confined to the realms of realism and plausibility.
The Final Verdict
With everything being said and done, though Manhattan Beach may have a few flaws here and there, overall it remains very much an enjoyable and enlightening work of historical fiction that explores a small microcosm of our universe, one that feels like it might be forgotten soon. If you like family drama, a far-reaching mystery, and are interested in exploring Brooklyn during the Second World War, I would highly recommend you check this novel out.
Jennifer Egan is an American novelist and short story writer whose 2011 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Fellowships. Her other works include the short fiction stories Emerald City and Black Box, as well as full-length novels such as The Keep and Manhattan Beach.