Book Review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan is an auto-buy author for me and when Manhattan Beach came out, I was very excited to read the first book released by Egan in 6 years!

I didn’t really know what to expect from the historical fiction novel set in the 1930’s and 40’s, largely around the Brooklyn Naval Yard, following gangsters and divers. But I fell in love with Manhattan Beach, as I do with all Egan’s works.

Manhattan Beach is not a plot-based book, but a slow-burning exploration of characters, and the way those characters weave into one another’s lives.

The motifs of the book are swept up in imagery of the ocean, and each ‘part’ has connotations of the sea.

Our protagonist, Anna Kerrigan, comes from a fractured family – her father mysteriously disappeared when Anna was twelve and this leaves a void of guilt and curiosity in her.

Anna becomes the book’s first female diver, defying the misogyny of the Naval Yard. The metaphor of Anna as a diver, exploring the hidden depths of the harbour and repairing ships, is likened to Anna’s search for the truth about her father and repairing the hole his absence left in her life.

the hardback cover of Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan on a striped bedspread

I got swept away by Manhattan Beach… Image by Kyra Thomsen

I never thought I’d be truly interested in the mechanics of diving, or the operations of the Brooklyn Naval Yard, but Egan’s characters and settings are so full of life that I was sucked right into the story.

I felt every laboured breath Anna took inside that heavy diving suit, I felt the pulse of excitement from the 1940’s nightclubs Anna visited, and I felt my heart break for Anna’s family (particularly her sister, Lydia).

Manhattan Beach is a slow but incredibly beautiful and rewarding book, and the plot picks up around halfway through and carries you with it, like getting caught in a rip tide.

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