By Sarah Rosenthal
Small Press Distribution, 2009
Reviewed by Emily Hendren

In the mixed-genre novel Manhatten, Sarah Rosenthal introduces her reader to the streets of New York and more than thirty years of memories with family, friends, and foes alike. Her narrator retraces days of youth, intellectualism, and love with moments akin to the whimsy of a dairy-writing teen and the poise of a poetry-savoring woman. The descriptions, structural conventions, and poems laced between chapters of prose all lend themselves to the arcing search for identity in one of the most identified cities in the world.

The descriptions of the characters and interactions between people and places ground the book and offer layers to the time-traveling narrator herself. In spite of sometimes losing her reader in the pinball-like game of keeping track of every new character and scenario, Rosenthal describes her many names and faces well. A description of a friend, Charlotte—“She was like a painting of a woman by a man who really liked women”— demonstrates Rosenthal’s ability to capture that which surrounds her with a quickness and accurate choice of words. Charlotte may only take root in a few chapters, but the reader has a firm grasp of what she is like and how she is perceived by the narrator through Rosenthal’s simple and clear vocabulary.

Rosenthal describes another character as “Liberty is Lisa is Mary is Jesus,” drawing parallels between the woman, Lisa, and a heart-center of New York City, the Statue of Liberty, as well as the religious figures, Mary and Jesus. This notion of ‘one thing is another’ establishes itself firmly throughout the text and gathers momentum as the narrator questions her identity and recreates her self-image again and again.

Through the journey of coming of age and growing into the many labels of her life (Jewish, artist, woman, other), the narrator establishes a sense of self based on what she witnesses around her. She compares herself with others, bringing awareness to her similarities and differences, comparing and grading herself against family and friends.

The fifteen poems throughout the book, as well as several chapters that read more like prose poems than prose, help establish theme and function well as bookends to the surrounding chapters. Several of the poems reference glass or water, words that work nicely as metaphorical reflective agents and substances of fluidity. Along with offering nice visual and structural breaks to the book, the poems provide diverse and lyrical support to the surrounding chapters through abstract imagery and playful language. Rosenthal leaves much up to the reader in her poetry, but she often reigns in the abstract with structured, simple lines such as “yes i will meet the physicist” and “the river water will resemble river water.”

What begins as a stream-of-consciousness story of characters and memories gathers itself into something that feels less by-accident by the end of the book. The characters and memories are just as they were a hundred pages earlier, but they have become more "people and places" and less "characters and spotty memories." Rosenthal suggests that identity is perhaps not what we make of it, but what we experience; the active search for identity might in fact be futile because it is the people and places we experience, often by accident, and the stories we share that comprise our identities. Though at times shoulder-shrug-inducing in topic and dizzying from story layered upon story, Manhatten suggests that one purpose of life and the establishment of identity stems from the sharing and telling of stories—the very heartbeat of Manhattan itself.

© Emily Hendren, 2011