It is no coincidence that these subcultures are mostly professional in nature. While we do visit the Kerrigans’ small cluttered apartment and the Styleses’ grand home, Egan’s book is far less interested in domestic relationships than in those of the workplace.
By the early 1940s, the stability of American urban domestic life had been under threat for years. Families had been strained by the economic dislocation of the Depression, by the ethnic, religious and class divisions stemming from large-scale immigration and, finally, by the war.
Add to these generational forces of entropy the more timeless problems of pride, shame, ambition and wanderlust, and no family unit in Egan’s novel seems particularly secure. “Her life was a war life; the war was her life,” Egan writes of Anna at one point. “There had been another life before that – her family, the neighborhood – but everyone from that time had died, or moved, or grown up.”
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Yet what stability the central characters fail to find at home, they discover at work. Eddie, Dexter and Anna all form profound bonds on the job – whether with fellow shipmates, henchmen or divers. While in their personal lives the three struggle with the limitations prescribed by their gender, class and family roles, their intimate professional units provide them with human connections that supersede prejudice and presumption. On the job, the three can ultimately be themselves.
Perhaps it is to be expected that a story of intertwined fates should be laden with secrets. Virtually all of the characters here have them. In the course of the novel, meetings take place that are never to be spoken of again. Money changes hands with provenance suppressed. Misrepresentations of paternity and identity are engineered right alongside the more mundane deceits that spring from infidelity and murder. As Dexter’s white-shoe banker of a father-in-law observes: “Every man has his secrets, his costs of doing business.”
We could elaborate by noting that secrecy can also be the cost of having relationships. In this broader context, Egan nimbly explores two of the central paradoxes inherent in the keeping of secrets. First, while a secret is a piece of information that we bury, it can quickly become the prevailing force shaping our identity and governing our actions in the world. Second, while we fashion most secrets to preserve some form of liberty, they inevitably constrain us by inhibiting self-knowledge and self-proclamation.
But for all of their asymmetric influence, secrets are ultimately mortal. What is done cannot be undone through dissemblance. The hidden fact bides its time in obscurity waiting to be revealed by a slip of the tongue or a chance encounter. And in the context of Egan’s novel, it is only when secrets unravel that the business of personal liberty can begin.