‘She’d never been good at banter; it was like a skipping rope whose rhythm she couldn’t master enough to jump in with confidence.’
When I read The Keep by Jennifer Egan, I was so engaged with the textures and structures that I knew I’d be visiting her books again. Given that The Keep was never fully within my grasp in terms of understanding the whole, I didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect from Manhattan Beach.
It’s a very different book. More conventional in many ways, but no less gripping for that.
The central character is Anna. We meet her as a young girl as she visits a Gatsbyesque gangster with her father. The father/daughter relationship is clearly a very special and rather fragile one, the links between father and gangster are new and tentative. Though the early encounters with each of these people is fascinating and beautifully described, it took me a while to get to the pace and cadence of the story. Sentences took me by surprise and the variation in points of view had me struggling to fully acclimatise. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying things. In fact, it was quite the opposite. It was, perhaps, more that I found the landscape disorientating until I found my feet.
Once I’d come to know Anna’s family (a mother who has given up on her dancing career and on many other aspects of her life in order to become a carer; Anna’s severely disabled sister who rarely speaks but steals many of the scenes in which she appears; her bagman of a father; and her errant aunt who makes a living from the men she connects with) everything settled down. Like Anna, who will later find great insight from fumbling around in the darkness of the underwater world, I was able to find my way through the twists and turns with delight and navigate land and sea as if a natural.
The flesh on the bones of the story is rich and delicious. It offers great insights into a world at a different time. There’s a war on. Many of New York’s men have gone to fight and many of those remaining are about to leave. Women are finding new roles as necessity gives birth to invention without eliminating prejudice or changing attitudes. Similarly with race, equality is available only in small, practically invisible measures. There are barriers everywhere for Anna to overcome, but she’s strong and wise and determined.
As well as an insight into wartime New York, we get a great view into life in the Merchant Navy. As Anna’s aunt mentions, the sailors involved count among the overlooked heroes and from the stories we get to witness, any stripes they earned cannot be begrudged.
The gangland element of this tale is mysterious and fascinating. Dexter Styles is our eyepiece. He has risen through the ranks of the mob and married into power and society until he is on the verge of being completely legitimate. He has an uncanny way of understanding people and situations. He sees the world with clarity and certainty. He’s an adorable bad guy. His grip on the world only begins to loosen as a grown-up Anna re-enters his orbit.
Overall, this one’s a real joy. I didn’t want it to finish and when I was inside I was totally submerged in Egan’s creation. I felt like I was there and could cut loose from reality and drift like a raft upon the ocean at any point in time simply by opening the pages at my bookmark and sailing on.
Is this the perfect read? Of course not. There are flaws. Where the scenes on the shipyards, of the diving and of life at sea appear to be deeply researched (all explanations being deftly handled), the world of the gangster seems to be less understood and I think I’d have liked a more solid grounding here. The early stages do take some orientation. There are a number of coincidences in terms of the plot that are a little too convenient if you want to split hairs.
As far as I’m concerned, any imperfections are easily overlooked. Jennifer Egan’s style is superb whether she’s working with large or fine brushes. It’s her insight into her characters that ultimately wins out. Her ability to describe the impossible or unreachable with poetic similes or slices of magic is wonderful. Her trump card, I reckon, is her ability to throw her human creations into the world and then be able to describe every one of their reactions. This ability to empathise to such depth within fiction is a rare thing. She may even have to wear a protective suit to get right down to those levels. I felt it most when she was dealing with loss, a recurring theme throughout the novel. That’s when the delicate touch can be most keenly felt. And now I’ve come to the journey’s end, I’m experiencing my own sense of loss. But, never mind:
‘It was all still there, everything he’d left behind. It’s vanishing had only been a trick.’
Absolutely loved this read. Go and escape.