Jennifer Egan. Photo: Getty
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In much of Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, feelings come second place to facts

The follow-up to A Visit from the Goon Squad is a research project first and a novel second.

There’s a lot to learn from Jennifer Egan’s new novel, both about deep-sea diving during the Second World War and the dangers of historical fiction. The long awaited follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach is a period work whose plot wends its way from a portentous meeting on the Brooklyn shore during the Great Depression to the naval yards of San Francisco moments before Germany’s capitulation.

Unlike Goon Squad, a series of inventive, interlinked stories about rock-stars getting old, this one features actual goons, though the word is used just once, on page 324. “Gangsters”, “loogans”, “associates” or “hoods” are the preferred nomenclature.

No doubt these terms are historically accurate. Everything in Manhattan Beach appears to have been researched to the point of tedium, from the magazines being read in doctors’ surgeries in 1944 (“Magazines had been fanned precisely over a lacquered coffee table: Collier’s, McClure’s, The Saturday Evening Post”) to the brand of convertible driven by the day’s mobsters: “He never let another man behind the wheel of his new Series 62 Cadillac,” we’re told of Dexter Styles, a Vito Corleone type who dreams of joining his WASP father-in-law in the more “legitimate” world of speculative banking.

What’s more, the car is “painted Norse Gray, one of the last to roll off the line before Detroit moved strictly into war production”. In this sentence, as in hundreds of others, feelings come second place to facts.

It is Styles’s early encounter with Anna Kerrigan, the tough and canny daughter of a genial union dogsbody named Eddie, that sets the plot running. Styles, who runs a ring of nightclubs, intends to hire Eddie to oversee his gambling interests. When Eddie and his daughter visit the Styles family at their palatial shoreside home (arriving in “a ’28 Duesenberg Model J, Niagara blue”) the trio wander down to the property’s private beach. Before dipping her toes in the water, the 11-year-old Anna stares out to sea:

There was a feeling she had, standing at its edge: an electric mix of attraction and dread. What would be exposed if all that water should suddenly vanish? 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 drain. Dead bodies, her father always added, with a laugh.

It’s as if he knew what was coming. A decade later, Eddie has disappeared without trace and Anna is committed to becoming the US Navy’s first female diver, repairing damaged warships in the opaque depths of Brooklyn harbour. The likelihood that she’ll achieve her goal is never truly in doubt, mainly because cartoonishly dislikable men keep telling her she won’t.

After she runs into Styles at one of his clubs, he offers to take her chronically ill sister to the beach, though this backfires (the sister dies). Not long after this, they begin an affair, which also backfires (Anna becomes pregnant). Midway through, the novel forks chronologically, mixing flashback and recollection to reveal the whereabouts of Eddie Kerrigan as well as the fates of Anna and Styles.

Not much of this is especially believable. Not because it lacks verisimilitude, which it has in spadefuls, but because characters’ emotions are bolted to Egan’s research and always seem overshadowed. There are instances of the first-rate prose that fizzed through Goon Squad: sometimes descriptive (“the bones of his throat moved like knuckles when he swallowed”), sometimes reflective (“hope became the memory of hope; a numb, dead patch”).

But these are hampered by attempts to summon feeling from nothing (“words lodged in Eddie’s ears with the preternatural weight of a truth he’d already known”) and by the numerous plot-hinges lifted not from the Brooklyn Historical Society archives but from Hollywood gangster movies. (“Like any garrulous killer, he wanted his victim to hear him out before he finished him off.”)

Despite Anna’s rise to become “the best goddamn diver in my unit” according to her lieutenant, pregnancy is one prejudice the oily lackeys and arrogant bosses at the shipyards have yet to overcome, and so Anna heads West, to California, to start anew. Meanwhile her father, thought to have been drowned, is sailing around Africa with the merchant marines.

It’s one of the better sections in the novel, stitching its learning more convincingly into a narrative that moves with some urgency (Eddie’s boat, Elizabeth Seaman, is pursued and then torpedoed by a German U-boat.) There is more peril on the sea than under it, it turns out, and for the first time we find ourselves within history and not just smothered by it. 

Manhattan Beach
Jennifer Egan
Corsair, 448pp, £16.99

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist