City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan
Penguin Publishing Group: 4/26/16
eBook review copy; 208 pages
City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan is a very highly recommended
novel about the Jewish underground resistance in Jerusalem after the
Second World War.
In 1945, immediately following World War II, Jewish refugees had no
place to go and tens of thousands set out for Palestine, but
Jerusalem is under British occupation and control. The British have
check points and actively search for any refugee there illegally.
The refugees have forged papers, new identities, and try to fit in
with the local population to escape arrest.
Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jew, is a survivor of the Holocaust and a
refugee. He lost his whole family and beloved wife. Now Brand is
driving a taxi in Jerusalem, as a cover for his involvement in the
resistance group Haganah. Their goal, along with other resistance
groups, is to drive the British out of Palestine and establish a
One of Brand's jobs is to drive fellow resistance member and
survivor Eva to assignations as a prostitute. Her job is to gather
information. In their off-hours, Brand and Eva are lovers. Even
though they have said they will not fall in love, this
relationship fills Brand with guilt. He feels like he is betraying
his wife and is haunted by memories of the past.
Brand plays a small part in his resistance cell lead by a man
called Asher. Members are secretive, even with each other, and
information is on a need-to-know basis. The loyalty of the
members is often in question within the group. As the danger seems
to loom larger and the resistance efforts become more daring,
Brand continues to follow Asher's plans, but begins to suspect
that he is being used - a small cog in bigger plans.
Brand is a lonely, woeful man of few words. He
of the present and past. He is tortured by his survival. He wants
to be the good, honest man he was at one time. He has found himself part
of a movement where he has no control. This dark, noirish novel is one
of intrigue, certainly, but at its heart it is a much more poignant
novel of one man's struggle to make sense of all the brutal parts of his
life that have stripped him of so much. He has been left with the
skills he possesses. He keeps track of where he is and how to get
through the city. He is a good mechanic.
O'Nan is a masterful writer. The prose is sparse,
precise; many details
are implied and some rely on an understanding of history and how
repeats itself, often with similar actions wrapped in different
verbiage. This is the story of one man, but the moral implications
and questions it raises are profoundly tied into humanity itself. This
is a novel that you will remember not for its verbose prose, but its
depiction of one man who survived the unthinkable to find himself in a
specific place during a chaotic period of time.
I simply can't quite explain the quiet strength of
this novel. Don't look at the number of pages. This is a perfect novel
for those who enjoy historical fiction, as the setting is well
researched and the characters are perfectly placed in this specific time
and place. But it is ultimately about so much more. This is a memorable
novel and one that will stay with you after you have read it.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of the Penguin
Publishing Group for