Jennifer Egan has given us something completely different this time. After A Visit from the Goon Squad, her multi-award winning book of 2011, we who loved that book might have expected some sort of futuristic science fiction opus as her next work. Instead, she has chosen to go back in time.
She has written a historical fiction work, one set during the World War II period. Such a traditional novel may seem a great departure from Goon Squad and it is. But it still features the same inventive attention to language and a setting that is so fully imagined and described that the reader feels as though she's walking along that beach, working in that wartime shipyard, diving alongside the ships being built in that shipyard.
The main protagonist here is Anna Kerrigan whom we meet as an eleven-year-old girl in 1934. She is with her father, Eddie, as he meets with a gentleman gangster named Dexter Styles on Manhattan Beach. Eddie is seeking a way to make more money to support his wife and two daughters, the younger of whom is severely disabled and needs an expensive wheelchair.
Styles apparently takes Eddie on as a bag man for his "business" but soon enough Eddie disappears, leaving Anna, her mother, and her sister whom they both adore.
Anna grows up and World War II comes along to interfere with her plans. She ends up working at the shipyard in service to the war effort, but her great dream is to become a diver. The first woman diver to work in the Naval Yards.
I was fascinated by Egan's descriptions of the various subcultures in a New York City that has been radically transformed by the entry into World War II. From the hierarchies of the crime syndicate of which Dexter Styles is a part, to the uppermost tier of New York society that his wife comes from, and the world of the military and of commercial diving where Anna battles her way through all the obstacles thrown up by society to prevent a woman from becoming a full participant.
The fates of Anna, Eddie, and Dexter are inextricably intertwined from that day back in 1934 when they first met on Manhattan Beach and those connections continue to advance the story. Each of these characters has his or her secrets and their secrets shape who the characters are and how they interact with the world.
The novel has other settings besides New York, but, primarily, it is a novel of that great city in that period. We visit its tenements, its highbrow retreats, its nightclubs; but mostly we visit its harbors, the port of New York. Our focus is on the sea as a workplace and as a gateway.
We see the freighters docked at the piers and the battleships being built at the Brooklyn Naval Yards. We see that the local fisheries and oyster beds of the time are thriving, and the society of the area is a rich mix of all who participate in these activities and those who serve their needs. Anna comes of age in this society and we experience it through her.
Egan has given us a rich portrayal of life in this era with an emphasis on the strictures with which young women had to contend in order to participate fully in that life. I loved reading about Anna and I can't think of one negative thing to say about Egan's book.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars