by Jennifer Egan
Manhattan Beach is a historical novel, more or less, that proceeds fairly straightforwardly from a beginning (New York during the Great Depression) through a middle (the build-up to the second world war) to an end (wartime life). The fuss about this owes much to Egan’s previous work, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), which won the Pulitzer Prize and messed with everything from the short story to PowerPoint presentation.
Egan proves as good at turning pages as she was in carving glorious meta-fiction from prison writing, adventure stories and creative-writing classes (in The Keep ). Our heroine is Anna Kerrigan. In the opening section, she is 11 and just about surviving in poverty when her father, Eddie (a stockbroker fallen on hard times), meets a criminally attractive mob-type. The encounter on the titular beach haunts everything that follows.
In section two, we find Anna, now 19, working as a diver to support her mother and disabled sister. She is forced to be the bread-winner, we learn, by Eddie’s sudden and unexplained disappearance.
Egan’s slow drip feed of information almost makes Manhattan Beach a thriller, but it also asks profound questions about experience, family, loss and truth. While not as dazzling as Goon Squad, the novel only extends Egan’s brilliant versatility.