Jennifer Egan updates old-fashioned page turner in ‘Manhattan Beach’

How to search for a body underwater, how to facilitate your rescue in the event of loss and drift at sea, how to run a nightclub, how to bribe a cop, how to care for an invalid, you learn things by reading this novel. Egan’s fiction buzzes with factual cross-currents, casually deployed.

It is a novel about the sea, which is constantly aware of Manhattan as an island. Reading Edna O’Brien’s short stories, there is almost always a fire blazing in the background. In “Manhattan Beach,” almost all of the scenes take place against a river, ocean, or tidal basin.

Water here is a place of rebirth and deadly terror. At the beginning of the novel, as Anna gazes out to sea, Egan writes, “There was a feeling she had, standing on board: an electric mixture of attraction and dread. What would he be exposed to if all that water suddenly disappeared? A landscape of lost objects: sunken ships, hidden treasure, gold and gems, and the charm bracelet that had fallen from her wrist into a storm sewer. There are corpses there too, Anna’s father tells him, in lines that sound like premonition.

Anna goes to work at the shipyard, her eyes still flickering at the ships in the water outside the factory windows. This novel has a lively sense of war work and the place of women. Dexter takes a look at this ferment, and he reports:

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“Eight hundred girls were working inside Building 4, a construction workshop, their last stop. It was difficult to separate them from the men – the welders in particular, with their thick gloves and face shields. You had to rely on stature, and as their party moved from bay to bay, Dexter improved in that regard. Girls holding torches. Girls cutting metal into pieces; girls building molds of wooden boat parts. A question of fact about even the pretty ones; look or don’t look. “

Egan is a generous writer. She doesn’t write so many dialogues, for example, as she writes repartee. Many writers’ books relax when their characters open their mouths, as if monotony equates to verisimilitude. Egan’s minty dialogue grabs your attention.

Anna reads detective novels, and that novel itself becomes something of a dark thriller. Egan is aware of bad luck and missed opportunities that can lead men and women to crime.