Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is a thoughtful thriller, summoning the world it exists in, a cinematic shadow world existing in between the pages of our known history. The novel is set in New York, centred around World War II, all that lead up to it and its lasting impacts. Class conflict, organised crime, merchant marines, and the rapid pace of change fill this mystery story with colour and movement.
We open in Brooklyn, during the Great Depression. Anna Kerrigan is almost 12, and she is doing one of her favourite things: accompanying her father on his work trips around New York. This is a special experience, the foundation of their relationship; back home with mother and her disabled sister, her father is different. But Anna, like the rest of her family, does not realise what it is that her father actually does; just how dangerous it is. So when he disappears, affairs in order, there’s no real understanding of the kind of end he could have met.
Years later, with her father gone and the country at war, Anna works on the Brooklyn Naval Docks. Out one night with a blonde bombshell of a colleague, Anna meets and remembers Dexter Styles: the man her father met on her last work trip with him. Dexter does not remember her, she conceals her last name from him, and she is drawn towards Dexter to seek resolution around the the mystery of her father’s disappearance.
What follows is both mesmerising and paced like a thriller. In that way it is an exceptional novel. The repercussions of Anna’s father’s disappearance, the pace of life and change in New York, Anna’s forging of her own identity, are the strong undercurrents pulling along the mystery. Egan switches narration perspectives, between Anna, her father, and Dexter, coming at the story from all sides with the detail and mood of a noir tale. There is no hardened detective, no damsel in distress, but Anna: determined and smart.
It is also hauntingly beautiful. There is an ongoing connection to the Hudson River, the beach, the pull of the tides, the boats and the navy. It is important to the characters and their world, and Egan’s expression is beautiful:
“In the long minutes Mackey spent unrolling his socks, the pink streaks faded from the sky as if someone had brushed them from a table. What remained was an aquamarine so glassy and pure it looked as though it would chime if you tapped it with a spoon.”
In this clash of class and times, there is both intimacy and distancing startling moments. A gripping balance is struck between the the closeness established with a first person narrator, and the hardened, unfathomable world they live in. Anna is a fully developed, fascinating character, driving this kind of classic mystery story.
While I do not agree with its promotion – that this book is 2017’s most anticipated book of the year – the novel is a marvel. The contrasts and juxtapositions that Egan manages to balance and harmonise are stunning. Thematically dark and beautiful, driven by whole, detailed characters, supported by a wealth of historical detail and precise writing, Manhattan Beach is a wonderful read.