Oops, no! Not the film!
The new novel by Pulitzer prize winner, Jennifer Egan was recommended to me by my favourite bookseller, Jessica at Primrose Hill Books NW1.
Manhattan Beach is set in the streets and clubs around the Naval Yards of New York just before Pearl Harbour and after. There are many characters but we see the whole picture through the experiences of three of them. Eddie Kerrigan, tall, unobtrusively handsome, husband and father to Anna and Lydia. His wife, Agnes, was once a Follies chorus girl, as was her sister, Brianne, who breezes in and out of the narrative like a breath of whisky!
Anna, who is a child at the start of the book, she is her father’s girl and often accompanies him while he is out and about, as a messenger for Donellen, a Union man on the docks. But once she reaches the nubile age of around twelve or so, he can no longer take her with him.
One of the characters that Eddie visits is Dexter Styles. A racketeer, owner of several bars and casinos, he is the principle pivot in this novel around whom things happen. Dexter is married into New York nobility (of a sort) although he is himself on the wrong side of the tracks in every sense: background, profession and the rest. However, his father-in-law, a wealthy banker has allowed the marriage to go ahead on some pretty stern limits.
As a young woman, Anna sees Dexter again, in one of his clubs. At the time she is working in the navel yards at a bench where she assesses the exact measurements of small widgets that are going into the building and repair yards for battleships, namely the USS Missouri and others. One day, she sees divers training off a barge in the East River and determines to train.
Not unlike The Woolgrower’s Companion, this is a book very much set in its time, the war having taken the men away so that women finally have an opportunity to do some real work, as opposed to housework. And in a similar way, this is also demonstrated in a film I saw at the London Film Festival, The Guardians about women on a farm in France during World War I.
And as a complete coincidence, I saw the National Theatre production of Follies, the Stephen Sondheim musical; a completely overwhelmingly wonderful production, lavish, stylish and memorable. It must come on again sometime. Which chimes perfectly with the Manhattan Beach sisters, Agnes and Brianne.