When Anna Kerrigan is eleven her father, Eddie, takes her on a visit to see Dexter Styles. Anna plays on the Styles’ private beach with Dexter’s daughter as a conversation takes place between the two men.
Eddie is a ‘bagman’, someone who carries bags between men who shouldn’t be seen associating.
The ideal bagman was unaffiliated with either side, neutral in dress and deportment, and able to rid these exchanges of the underhanded feeling they naturally had. Eddie Kerrigan was that man. He looked comfortable everywhere – racetracks, dance halls, theatres, Holy Name Society meetings. He’d a pleasant face, a neutral American accent, and plenty of practice at moving between worlds.
Eddie’s involvement with Dexter Styles has come about because of his other daughter, Anna’s sister, Lydia. Lydia is severely disabled and is cared for by her mother. She needs a special chair in order to be able to sit up. Working for Styles would allow Eddie to pay for this and feel as though he’s contributing to his daughter’s life. He doesn’t know how to behave with her preferring ‘to assume Lydia couldn’t think or feel except as an animal did, attending to its own survival’.
After a 40-page set-up, Egan jumps forward eight years. World War II is in progress. Anna is 19 and is working on the docks in Brooklyn, inspecting parts for battleships. Her father has disappeared five years earlier, leaving the apartment ‘as he would have on any day’ and never returning. Anna and her mother care for Lydia.
Anna befriends Nell, another young woman working at the naval yard. It’s Nell who convinces her to go to a nightclub where she’ll meet Dexter Styles for the first time since the day she went to his house. This allows Egan to follow Styles and show us around his world. It also gives Anna an opportunity to try and discover what happened to her father. While this is building, Anna discovers that divers work in the yard and she decides it’s something she wants to do. Men are leaving for active service every week, she assumes that at some point they’ll have to allow a woman to dive.
With Manhattan Beach Egan creates an engaging tale of a woman forging a path through a very male world. This is true both of Anna’s attempts to become a diver and the relationship that develops between her and Styles. It’s a very different type of book to A Visit from the Goon Squad, more of a conventional historical narrative. It loses something in the length of the novel: there are sections where we discover what happened to Anna’s father that could’ve been cut, and in some sections Egan’s research into the docks and the role of the divers threatens to overwhelm the story. However, where Egan does delight is in the trajectories of the characters. At an event for Manchester Literature Festival last year, she talked about mapping out all the possible decisions a character could make to ensure she chose the least likely. This could be disastrous in someone else’s hands but Egan lays the threads that not only make these twists and turns plausible but also entirely believable.
Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.