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Jennifer Egan's new novel provides a fascinating picture of mid 20th century Manhattan.
By MARGARET BANNISTER
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jennifer Egan presents in the first part of this novel the story of young American girl Anna Kerrigan, born into a family struggling financially from the effects of the 1928 crash, in a Manhattan still run largely by gangsters of Irish and Italian origin.
Her home is relatively secure and loving, but also struggling with caring for Anna's young sister, born badly disabled and in need of expensive equipment.
In the first chapter Anna and her father visit a wealthy nightclub owner, Dexter Styles, whose large house is by the sea. It is apparent at this early stage Anna is very bright and not afraid to speak up. The two central themes of the story are set up: the sea and secret illegal activities.
The story then moves forward in part two to America after the Pearl Harbour attack.
Anna is working in the naval yard, checking small pieces of naval machines essential for ships preparing for war.
Women workers are a novelty, and viewed with some dismissal by men. Anna finds the work extremely boring, until one day she sees some men learning to dive. With some difficulty she persuades the men to let her have a go, and she surprises them. She is quick to learn, and loves it.
Her father has long gone missing. A picture of Manhattan is drawn of nightclubs, gambling, movies, open sexuality and powerful Catholic families.
The story continues, weaving together themes of family affection and problems, disappearing father and the first female diver.
I found this an extremely enjoyable and interesting book. Egan's style is crisp and not without irony. Maps of Manhattan's naval ship building and docking area decorate the inside of the covers, which help to set the atmosphere, and give a sense of the squalor.
Margaret Bannister is a retired Dunedin psychotherapist and science teacher.