Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. She’s published a new book this season – her first historical novel – set on the Brooklyn waterfront in the war years just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The atmosphere exudes post-Depression hardship and wartime patriotism, while the novel’s characters struggle to manage and change their lives. We come to care about these characters, especially the protagonist Anna, whose father Eddie Kerrigan takes her with him to meet the racketeer Dexter Styles at his beachfront home. In this opening scene, the 11-year-old Anna impresses the powerful gangster by walking barefoot into the arctic water off Manhattan Beach.
These beginning pages set up the novel’s mystery about Eddie Kerrigan’s disappearance a few years later. They also foreshadow Anna’s fearlessness in the ocean and her connection to Dexter Styles. That connection begins at Dexter’s nightclub, when an older Anna boldly approaches the gangster’s table to make awkward conversation. She runs into him again, later, on the street, and this time she convinces Dexter to do her a favor. She wants her severely disabled sister to see the ocean. Dexter agrees and makes it happen.
He fails, though, to recognize Anna as Eddie Kerrigan’s daughter. She knows he knows what happened to her father, but Anna withholds revealing her identity until the third time they meet once again in Dexter’s nightclub. Meanwhile, Anna works in a tedious job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She dreams of becoming a diver to repair American warships under water. Against all odds, she makes it happen.
Anna is an intelligent character who gutsily takes on challenges, whether that’s plumbing the secret of her father’s disappearance or becoming the first female diver in the shipyard. She’s considered to be a good girl by those who know her. It’s a perception that allows her to lie and take dangerous risks, because no one expects it of her.
Once Anna’s identity becomes known to Dexter, we begin to find out what happened to Eddie Kerrigan. That reveal, along with Dexter’s obsession over Anna, creates a page-turning experience as everything comes together. All the while, author Jennifer Egan writes with ingenuity and extensive knowledge about her subject matter. It’s remarkable storytelling.
There’s a moment when Dexter seeks business advice from his father-in-law. He’s a formidable man in his own right and he says: “Be patient, Dexter. Wars have a way of shifting the terrain into configurations we can’t foresee…” In Anna’s world, in this historical Manhattan Beach, those configurations evolve into a fictional masterpiece.
A version of this review ran on WOSU 89.7 FM, an NPR member station.