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Excerpt from City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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City of Secrets

by Stewart O'Nan

City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan X
City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2016, 208 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2017, 208 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Naomi Benaron
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1

When the war came Brand was lucky, spared death because he was young and could fix an engine, unlike his wife Katya and his mother and father and baby sister Giggi, unlike his grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. A Latvian and a Jew, he was interned first by the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians again. By chance, he lived. While he was tempted almost daily (really, nightly), he wasn't enough of a fatalist to return the gift. The winter after the war, with no home to go back to and no graves to venerate, he signed on a Maltese freighter and landed in Jerusalem, realizing his mother's lifelong dream. In their dining room in Riga hung a bad lithograph of the walled city like a fortress out of Beau Geste, its stone golden in the numinous desert light. At the end of the seder, his Grandfather Udelson raised his glass to it.

"Next year in Jerusalem." For Brand it was next year, without sweetness.

Like so many refugees, he drove a taxi, provided, like his papers, by the underground. His new name was Jossi. His job to listen—again, lucky, since as a prisoner he had years of experience. With his fair hair and grade school Hebrew, he could be trusted. The British soldiers, the blissful pilgrim gawking tourists all wanted to talk. They spoke to him as if he were slow, leaning in close behind his ear, shaping each syllable.

Where was he from? What did he think of the trials? How did he like living in Jerusalem?

"I like it;" the man he was pretending to be said, instead of "It's better than the camps," or "I like living," or, honestly, "I don't know."

The city was a puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouin bankers. The Turks and Haredim, the showy Greek and Russian processions—everyone seemed to be in costume, reenacting the miraculous past. The very stones were secondhand, scavenged and fit back into place haphazardly, their Roman inscriptions inverted. It was the rainy season, and the walls were gray instead of golden, the souks teeming with rats. A wind thrashed the poplars and olive trees, stirring up trash in cul-de-sacs, rattling windows. He'd lost too much weight during the war and couldn't get warm. When he ran out kerosene, his contact Asher brought him a jerry can liberated from their masters. Nightly the streetlights flickered and the power went out. His flop overlooked an Armenian cemetery where the whores took the soldiers after the bars closed, their electric torches weaving between the crypts. The rain fell on the domes and bell towers and minarets, filling the ancient cisterns beneath the Old City, fell on Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives and the desert beyond, thunder cracking over the Dead Sea. The dankness reminded Brand of his grandmother's root cellar. As a boy he was afraid the door at the top of the rough stairs would swing closed of its own weight, the latch catching, leaving him in darkness. Now he imagined her hiding there, dirty-cheeked, surviving on jarred beets and horseradish, but of course she couldn't be. The house, the town, the entire country was gone.

Sometimes in the night when his dreams and the lightning wouldn't let him sleep, he dressed and went down to his taxi, an old black Peugeot he kept buffed to a mirror-like shine, and drove through the Zion Gate checkpoint into the Old City, as if he were going to pick up a fare, to see the widow. Her name was Eva, but when Asher had recommended her, he called her The Widow as if it were a code name, and though Brand widower himself, he couldn't get it out of his head. She would always be another's, that dead love private, untouchable.

How, after everything, was he still proud? There were worse things than second best.

Eva, his new Juliet, his new Eve. From Vilna, the Jerusalem of the North, with an urbane scorn for backward Latvia. She was older than Brand by more than a decade, her eyes baggy, her jet hair threaded with gray. Before the war she'd been an actress known for her Nora and Lady Macbeth. She wished she had her clippings to show him. In the right light he could see she'd been striking once, the dark hair and sky-blue eyes, high cheekbones and generous lips, but at the corner of her mouth a deep scar had healed badly, the nerve severed so that one side drooped in an exaggerated frown, like the mask of tragedy. Like Brand, she hated the Russians and Germans equally, absolutely. She was a joke among their cell, a ruined woman, useful for one thing. When she drank, she railed against the world, calling all men pigs.

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Excerpted from City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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