I first came across Jennifer Egan’s writing through her 2011, Pulitzer Prize winning, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I studied it with some of my creative writing students, who, like me, loved Egan’s ability to mash together so many voices and genres (magazine articles; interview transcripts; song lyrics…) whilst nevertheless maintaining a satisfying narrative thread. What I didn’t expect, as a follow up, was a piece of historical fiction. But perhaps I should have expected it: Egan, like the virtuoso writer, David Mitchell, is one of those writers who can clearly pull of just about anything.
I’m putting together ideas for a historical novel of my own – one that I’ve been shying away from for years as it’s outside my usual writing genre (contemporary fiction) and it’s also a sensitive subject, especially for my family: the love affair between my German grandmother and the head of the Berlin Police under Hitler, Wolf-Henrich Graf Von Helldorf, a morally ambiguous character who, in the end, formed part of the resistance. It was wonderful to come across a brilliant writer of contemporary fiction like Egan who went back to the era that I would be writing about too – the most pleasurable and insightful kind of research.
The story traces the relationship between a father and daughter, both of whom have a powerful relationship to the sea. The protagonist, Anna, is one of the first female divers to plum the depths of the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The descriptions of her diving from the crushingly heavy equipment she has to wear to the transcendental experience of floating down to the bottom of the ocean, were the passages I loved most. They also made me think of my father, who is an oceanographer and was a diver. He suffered from polio but, I believe, found great relief from diving. I’ve always been drawn to the sea. Maybe everyone is. Or maybe it’s in my DNA. My body feels most alive when I’m swimming. Intriguingly, the characters in my novels often find themselves drawn to the sea, not least in my latest novel, You Found Mey where it acts both as a path to a new and better life but also as a source of great tragedy. My two little girlslove the water. During a recent trip to the New England Aquarium in Boston, I had to wrestle my 21 month old back from jumping in to the tanks. She kept saying: ‘In…’ and ‘Touch…’
Ideas and experiences and what we’re reading – and writing – often coalesce in the most extraordinary ways. Before reading Manhattan Beach, I’d been thinking a great deal about the ocean after hearing an interview on one of my favourite programmes, Krista Tippett’s One Being, with the oceanographer Sylvia Earle. She speaks about how human kind knows more about outer space than the sea – and yet the sea is so much closer to us. The sea, she says, is the great, unchartered territory. She was diving and exploring the ocean at the same time as my father – and she was a mother of three whilst doing this, which also resonated.
Manhattan Beach is not just the story of a woman diving at the time of the second world war, it’s also a thriller, which makes it a page-turner, a quality which some historical novels lack. Anna’s father has disappeared and it takes the course of the whole book for her to find out what happened to him. He was involved with Styles, a shady businessman who lived in a world of gangers, sailors, divers, bankers and union men. Anna meets when Styles as a child and again as a young woman – ultimately, he’s the key that will help her find her father.
There’s a third strand to the novel too, the one which I found most moving: the relationship between Anna and her disabled sister, Lydia. It’s hard to portray physical disability in a way that is nuanced and does justice to the full humanity of the person whom life has, in one way or another, robbed of their full capacities. Lydia is described as a beautiful, ethereal creature who somehow hovers between this life and the life beyond. She mesmerises those who spend time with her, even the hardened criminal, Dexter Styles. The chapters in which Anna takes Lydia to experience the sea, for the first time, bring home what a difference it can make to those trapped by their own bodies to live an expansive a life rather than being confined, as they so often are, to a bed or a hospital.
The story of Manhattan Beach is told from three points of view: Anna’s, her father’s and that of the Dexter Styles, the corrupt buisnessman. Multiple point of view is a technique I love and use in most of my novels but this time, I found myself experiencing what some readers complain about when writers split their narrative into different lenses – that one voice is stronger than another; that they long to return to one narrator and have to push their way through the others. I loved Anna’s chapters – the other two points of view left me a little more indifferent. Just a small quibble and a personal one, no doubt. I’m sure that many would love to be in the head of World War II Manhattan gangster!
Here is a quotation I loved from the chapter where Anna takes her handicapped sister, Lydia, to witness the sea for the first time:
At last they set down the chair near the water. Panting from the walk, Anna leaned her head against her sister’s and watched a long wave form, stretching until it achieved translucence, then somersaulting forward and collapsing into cream sides that eked towards them over the sand, nearly touching the wheels of Lydia’s chair. Then along its surface where the weak sunlight touched it. The stranger, violent, beautiful sea: this was what she had wanted Lydia to see. It touched every part of the world, a glittering curtain drawn across a mystery. Anna wrapped her arms around her sister. “Liddy,” she said, speaking into the blankets where she thought her sister’s ear must be. “Can you see the sea? Can you hear it? It’s right in front of you – this is your chance. Now, Liddy. Now!” (p161)
I’ll leave you with two pictures: one of a diver in the 1940s and the other of a scuba diver I saw with my husband and my two little girls on Monday at the New England Aquarium in Boston (2018). The equipment changes but the desire to swim, to be in water, to float in that other, hidden world, remains the same.