Manhattan Beach’s cinematic narrative paints an in-depth picture of 1940s New York



By Jennifer Egan

Corsair/Paperback/ 436 pages/ Books Kinokuniya/ $29.95/

Water, wrote poet Elizabeth Bishop, is like what people imagine knowledge to be: "dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free/drawn from the cold hard mouth/of the world."

That powerful, liminal quality of water runs throughout Jennifer Egan's immaculately researched and immensely immersive new novel, holding its disparate parts together and transmuting history into epiphany.

Manhattan Beach is set in a New York still reeling from the Great Depression and faced with the storm of World War II across the sea.

At slightly more than 400 pages, it cannot qualify as epic, but Egan packs into those pages a sweeping, almost cinematic narrative that recalls film noir, diving biopic Men Of Honor (2000) and, of course, Moby-Dick author Herman Melville, whose appearance in the epigraph - "as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever" - is an early sign as to how to read the novel.

It follows three individuals: Irish-American gang courier Eddie Kerrigan, his headstrong daughter Anna and Dexter Styles, the dangerous nightclub racketeer with whom their lives become entwined.

When the reader first meets them in the 1930s, the Kerrigans are mired in financial difficulty due to the costs of caring for Anna's severely disabled sister Lydia, which forces Eddie to cut a deal with gang enemy Dexter.

Fast-forward seven years: Anna, now 19, works at the Naval Yard measuring battleship parts. Still consumed by the mystery of her father's abrupt disappearance years before, she encounters Dexter again at one of his nightclubs and realises he may have the answer to Eddie's fate.

Anna's storyline is the standout one here.

In one of the novel's finest sections, she signs up to be a diver and, through sheer grit, aces every test her sexist superiors throw at her.

You cannot help but root for this formidable young woman as she surmounts the trials of deepwater salvage, brought to life by Egan in painstaking detail: the crushing weight of the suit, the near-impossible tasks she must execute in it and the primordial dark world at the bottom of the sea.

Also endearing are the friendships she forges with her fellow divers: cynical Bascombe, who hopes a diving record will overcome the astigmatism that kept him out of the navy; and Marle, the unit's only black diver, who is fighting his own battle against prejudice.

Manhattan Beach exhibits a stunning degree of historical research, from the most technical aspects of American naval might to mundane details such as what people ate on their lunch breaks or even the colour of the wind.

But Egan's knack for textual tapestry weaves the nitty-gritty into an effortlessly rich picture that makes the past feel like the present. It is a time that has since flown, but appears to be flowing still when drawn by her hand.

If you like this, read: The Heat Of The Day by Elizabeth Bowen (Vintage, 1998, $21.01, Books Kinokuniya), in which a divorced single mother in World War II London learns from an unwanted suitor that her lover may be a Nazi spy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2017, with the headline Manhattan Beach’s cinematic narrative paints an in-depth picture of 1940s New York. Subscribe