BookBrowse Reviews City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan

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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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  • First Published:
    Apr 2016, 208 pages
    Apr 2017, 208 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Naomi Benaron
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About this Book



A moral thriller of the Jewish underground resistance in Jerusalem after the Second World War.

In his new novel, City of Secrets, Stewart O'Nan spins a tale of espionage and intrigue as richly layered and complex as the city it portrays, 1946 Jerusalem during the British Mandate. Like the city of Casablanca depicted in Michael Curtiz's 1942 eponymous film - and indeed there are many thematic similarities - O'Nan's Jerusalem is a place where no one is who he claims to be, spies are everywhere, and the characters are players moving toward a larger and dangerous purpose about which most of them can only guess. "The city was a puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new…everyone seemed to be in costume, reenacting the miraculous past." Also like Casablanca, Jerusalem is teeming with refugees. Here, they have either fled the violence and anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust or, like Brand, the novel's protagonist, they have arrived as survivors, their old homes gone, their old lives destroyed.

Brand is a Jew from Riga, Latvia who survived because he "was lucky" and could "fix an engine." His parents, sister, and wife were not so lucky; the Germans herded them into the forest and shot them. Following the British White Paper of 1939, Jewish immigration to Palestine was severely restricted and then became illegal in 1944, and so Brand, like most survivors, was smuggled in on a ship operated by Jewish resistance organizations, in his case the Haganah, of which he soon becomes a member. "Like so many refugees, he drove a taxi, provided by the underground. His new name was Jossi. His job was to listen – again lucky, since as a prisoner he had years of experience."

In O'Nan's hands, the landscape of the city and the country beyond take on a vivid and cinematic richness involving all the senses. The reader wanders with Brand through the confusing gates, walls, and narrow, dark streets that was Jerusalem, hearing the wind and driving rain, tantalized by the steamy aromas of the coffee souks. As O'Nan states in his article for Signature, the Jerusalem of 1946 is "long gone." The Jewish Quarter of which he writes was destroyed, and many of the old neighborhoods have been bulldozed. He had to find maps and guidebooks from the time, many of which were "riddled with inconsistencies", and in the end, he used the lack of information to his authorial advantage. "This way, the author, the character, and the reader are all learning at the same time, trying to navigate the physical and political labyrinth of post-war Jerusalem."

The story opens at the time when the Haganah, which had been opposed to violent tactics, has joined forces with the Irgun, an organization known for its terrorist acts and revolutionary doctrine. (See Beyond the Book.) Brand understands that he is a part of the escalating resistance against the British Mandate, but the nature of his role and the larger scope of the mission remain hidden from him. As the story progresses, he finds himself embroiled in increasingly dangerous and far-ranging missions, and it soon becomes clear that he is hurtling inescapably toward an action that could change history. Although Brand remains in the dark about the specifics, any reader familiar with the history of Mandatory Palestine will soon recognize the event toward which the novel's arc accelerates.

One of Brand's jobs as a driver is to chauffer Eva, another cell member, to her assignations. Eva, a survivor like Brand who lost everyone during the Holocaust, works as a prostitute in order to glean information from the British.

Both Eva and Brand hide their pasts and fight attachment, but soon, despite his agonizing guilt for betraying his wife's memory, Brand falls in love. "For all its confusion, love divined the truth. At bottom the heart was honest. Questioned long enough, it gave up its secrets, no matter how complicated or how painful." He understands that Eva's part in the resistance and her knowledge of the coming action are larger than his, yet he still strives to protect her as he failed to protect his wife and family.

Through Brand's character, O'Nan explores the deeper moral conflicts that arose in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Like many survivors, Brand is trying to construct for himself a new life and a new identity, but his past keeps circling back to him, and he is haunted by his inaction. "In the camps he'd learned to stand and watch. It saved his life and made him useless. If he'd come here to change, he needed to do better." For him, change means fighting with the Haganah to establish the nation of his people. And yet, taking action also has its consequences, as Brand soon learns. By nature "a lover of sunsets and protector of the weak," he must learn to be ruthless; he must learn to kill. But he can't get used to the idea. When Eva accuses him of wanting, "a revolution without bloodshed," he responds that no, what he wants is a revolution that is "just." In the end, he will understand that the price of justice is indeed grave.

In his introductory letter to the reader, O'Nan quotes David Lynch: "It's people in trouble, at night, with a little bit of wind and the right kind of music." It's an old story - yes - but in City of Secrets, it has been made new. It is a novel to be read quickly the first time because it is difficult to put down. Afterward, it becomes a novel to read again and again because each time, the labyrinth of Jerusalem's streets will offer up a new gem.

Reviewed by Naomi Benaron

This review was originally published in May 2016, and has been updated for the April 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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