Friday, April 22, 2016

City of Secrets

City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan
Penguin Publishing Group: 4/26/16
eBook review copy; 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9780670785964
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 Jewish state.

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 ponders events 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 it 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 review purposes.

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