Jennifer Egan has said that she wants each novel she writes to teach her something new. So what does the writer who won a Pulitzer prize in 2011 for A Visit from the Goon Squad – an experimental, audacious novel that embraces discontinuity, told in 13 chapters from varying points of view, including a surprisingly moving chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation – try next? Unpredictably, Egan has written something that looks at first glance like a traditional historical novel.
A work of remarkable cinematic scope, Manhattan Beach portrays the lives of an Irish family in Brooklyn, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and then the second world war. A young woman becomes a diver to help the war effort and uncovers the powerful forces that led to her beloved father’s disappearance; a father is forced to leave his family behind to save his own life; and a successful mobster gets swept up in cultural tides that threaten everything he’s built.
As a novelist, Egan possesses an unusual mix of qualities, combining a powerful social realism with poetic resonances that derive from her precise imagery and her fascination with the limitations of language. Here, she places her characters in situations that permit trenchant cultural observations, writing revealingly about the challenges of coming of age in the middle of the American century, when women’s lives were substantially circumscribed. But this novel is also metaphysical in nature: Egan’s characters are transformed by the vast ocean around them, which both hides and reveals.
In the vivid opening set piece, 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father Eddie to visit a charming mobster named Dexter Styles at his house in Manhattan Beach. A former stockbroker, Eddie hit hard times during the Depression. Now he’s working “at subsistence wages” as a bag man for Dunellen, a corrupt union official and old friend. But Eddie is angling for a new job: he needs money to pay for a wheelchair for Anna’s sister Lydia, who is severely disabled. Anna, of course, knows none of this, and the scene is written with the watchfulness of a young girl. When her father leaves her alone with Dexter’s daughter and her nurse at the beach, she finds herself driven to plunge her feet into the icy water, producing “a flame of ache that felt unexpectedly pleasant”, and resonating with the novel’s theme of loss:
There was a feeling she had, standing at [the sea’s] edge: an electric mix of attraction and dread. What would be exposed if all that water should suddenly vanish? A landscape of lost objects: sunken ships, hidden treasure, gold and gems and the charm bracelet that had fallen from her wrist into a storm drain. Dead bodies, her father always added, with a laugh. To him, the ocean was a wasteland.
While the reader might expect this scene to precede a book exploring Eddie and Dexter’s developing relationship, Egan thwarts our expectations, and Manhattan Beach is driven instead by the suspense of wondering what really happened that day. After the opening section, we flash forward to the mid-1940s: Anna is 19, working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Eddie has disappeared. Six years earlier, he “had left the apartment as he would have on any day – she couldn’t even recall it. The truth had arrived gradually, like nightfall.” Anna now supports her mother and Lydia, who has turned almost entirely inward, not speaking or moving, and whom Anna loves with a doomed tenderness that Egan evokes with painful realism. She fiercely pushes her way into a job as the only female diver in the Navy Yard, and later pursues a one-night stand with Dexter after meeting him at one of his night clubs, concealing her identity and hoping to learn what happened to her missing father.
Egan shifts perspectives fluidly, moving from Anna to Eddie to Dexter – all written in the close third person that allows us to shadow the characters’ inner lives. Dexter is drawn with uncommon complexity, a man driven to define himself against his father, aware of how power creates a “radical reordering” of one’s place in the world. In one crucial scene, Anna asks him to take Lydia to the beach, where Lydia briefly awakens and speaks. The moment changes not only Anna but Dexter for ever.
In this crucial scene, Egan pushes the writing towards a kind of Joycean musical fragmentation that convincingly conveys the extraordinariness of the encounter.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, as Joan Didion said, but often those stories are wrong or horribly partial. Egan’s interest seems to be in all the ways that our single perspective limits the stories we tell – how our lives get reordered by the discovery of key facts we lacked. Anna thinks her father disappeared because he couldn’t deal with her sister’s disability. Likewise, her boss and the many men she encounters tell a limited story about her: they believe that because she is a woman, she can’t be mentally or physically strong enough to do the work. Her quest to prove them wrong is one of the real thrills of this book. Egan describes diving, beautifully, as an act that delivers Anna “to a purely tactile realm that seemed to exist outside the rest of life. It was like pushing through a wall and finding a hidden chamber just beyond it.”
Egan’s decision to withhold crucial scenes until late on ends up feeling disappointing, even if one can appreciate the reasons for her doing so. It’s in the later sections that we meet Eddie once more, now a third mate on a cargo ship, the Elizabeth Seaman. We learn what happened all those years ago as we follow him in his own role in the war effort, but at this late stage the narrative feels less urgent than expository.
This may be a weakness of Manhattan Beach, but it comes from an admirable attempt to deploy narrative as a tool to enact – to mimic – the disruptions we experience in real life. This is a novel that will pull you in and under and carry you away on its rip tides. In particular, Anna’s plight as a woman whose will is larger than her circumstances is dramatised with tremendous power. Its resonances continue to wash over the reader long after the novel ends.
• Manhattan Beach is published by Little, Brown. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.