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Life during wartime – ‘Manhattan Beach’

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Latest from Jennifer Egan a masterful, powerful work

There are few literary treats more enticing than some well-built historical fiction. You know the kind I mean, the stuff that is both meticulously researched and narratively compelling while also being made up of unforgettable and exquisite prose. Fiction that transports you to a real time and place and allows you to experience it in a manner that feels like truth.

And Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” (Scribner, $28) is as good as it gets.

Egan - best known for her Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning 2011 book “A Visit from the Goon Squad” – receiving plenty of well-deserved acclaim for this latest offering, an emotional epic that spans a particularly turbulent time in this country’s history, focusing on the ways that time and place can shape who we are, who we become and the paths that our lives ultimately take.

When Anna Kerrigan was a young girl, she spent much of her time glued to her father’s hip. Her dad Eddie was heavily impacted – as were most Americans – by the stock market crash that sent the country lurching into the Great Depression. However, Eddie was able to keep his family fed thanks to a willingness to serve at the pleasure of the union bosses down at the pier.

But when Anna accompanied her father to a meeting with a “legitimate businessman” by the name of Dexter Styles, the dynamic would be forever changed. On that day, her father began doing a different kind of work. The kind of work to which one doesn’t expose a young woman. The kind of work you lie about to your innocent family. The kind of work that can sometimes end in tragedy, mystery and pain.

The kind of work where you might simply … disappear.

Years later, during the latter stretch of World War II, a 19-year-old Anna Kerrigan is working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, one of the multitude of women who entered the workforce when the country sent its men off to war. Not content with her important-yet-monotonous inspection job, she sets her mind to becoming a diver – the first female diver, in fact – in an effort to do something more. And with the strength of self and determination forged in the five years since her father vanished, she does just that.

But when Anna’s path once again crosses with that of Dexter Styles, she finds herself swept up into a whirlwind, one that she cannot - and perhaps doesn’t want to – control. She’s confronted with some ugly, difficult-to-accept truths about not only who her father was, but also who she herself might be.

Jennifer Egan is one of the most gifted writers of her generation. Few – if any – 21st century authors have both the storytelling acumen and brilliance of wordcraft that she brings to the table. Fascinating tales told via exquisite sentences – that’s Jennifer Egan.

“Manhattan Beach” puts her immense talents on full display. She digs down into the meat of these characters, uncovering the truth about who they are. It’s not just about what they do, but why they do it – layers upon layers of depth are neatly laid out before the reader. Egan lands emotional blow after emotional blow, impactful moments that manage to be both delicate and staggering.

Every storyline demands your attention, even as you wait to see how the threads of each will be spun together. And spin together they do, creating something beautiful and seamless. Rich with detail, the world created here is simply staggering. It’s largely insular – the lion’s share of the story is confined to the vicinity of the titular beach – yet it still manages to convey a sense of the epic.

Whether we’re at an inspection station or in a nightclub or somewhere atop or beneath the sea, “Manhattan Beach” is never anything less than captivating. The world that has been built and the people that populate it are magnificent – sharp and clear and utterly enticing.

At its heart, “Manhattan Beach” is a story about love. About its resilience and its long memory. About the joys and fears that come with it. About the pride and the shame. It is about the demands we make of ourselves and the lengths to which we will go to do what we believe to be right. It is a story that captures beautifully not just a time and a place, but a state of mind that was unique to a brief period in American history. Easily one of the best books of the year.

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