Stewart O’Nan’s slim but complex novel “City of Secrets” follows the story of Brand, a European refugee in post-WWII Palestine who is drawn into a terrorist plot. O’Nan appears Saturday, April 30, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
‘City of Secrets’
by Stewart O’Nan
Viking, 208 pp., $22
In 1945, at the end of World War II and before the birth of Israel, the region then called Palestine was (as it had been, and still is) one of deeply contested emotions. The British government, through martial law, tightly controlled the region and — reneging on previous promises — was blocking the formation of a Jewish state.
Zionist organizations, intent on creating Israel, stood in fierce opposition to British rule. Some of these groups, notably the Irgun, formed an underground resistance that carried out assassinations, armed robberies, bombings, and guerrilla raids on weapons caches.
The author of “City of Secrets” will appear at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
In part to aid its cause, the resistance helped illegally smuggle European refugees into the region. Out of the thousands of immigrants who came to Palestine, some assumed new identities and joined the clandestine militants.
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This volatile time and place is the backdrop for the distinguished novelist Stewart O’Nan’s enthralling new book.
“City of Secrets” revolves around one of these European refugees. Brand, a Latvian by birth, is a concentration camp survivor who is still visited by memories of his lost wife and daughter. He is also a deeply moral man who is sympathetic to the terrorists’ cause but torn over their tactics.
Brand is a skilled mechanic who by day navigates a taxi through Jerusalem’s twisty streets. By night, he is a haunted and lonely man.
When approached by a tightly controlled cell of militants, Brand also becomes a driver for them on secret, often dangerous missions. He enters into a strange, cautious, but tender affair with Eva, another haunted war survivor and a member of the cell. Eva works as a prostitute, and Brand frequently chauffeurs her to assignations at Jerusalem’s posh King David Hotel.
But his role in the cell is ambiguous, and Eva refuses to make the situation clear. Brand begins to suspect the true motives of some of the other cell members, in particular its charismatic leader.
Brand begins to realize that he is not being fully informed about the group’s activities; instead, he is being shut out. He is in (but not of) Palestine, a stranger in a strange land. And the same holds true for his role within the resistance cell. With his old life shattered and his new life tenuous, Brand belongs nowhere. In other words, he is an outsider twice over.
Meanwhile, tension builds as the cell plots a daring strike — a deadly bombing based on a real-life event.
As the author notes in a foreword, “City of Secrets” is in part an homage to three other distinguished writers: Raymond Chandler (for the darkness of his Philip Marlowe books and Marlowe’s sense of moral principle), Graham Greene (again, for the ambiguous morality and vivid atmosphere of his spy novels) and Joseph Conrad (for the radical terrorists and twisty plot of “The Secret Agent”).
Prolific, versatile, and ridiculously talented, O’Nan is no stranger to historical fiction; previous novels include a World War II homefront story (“A World Away”) and “West of Sunset,” a brilliant take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s troubled final years.
Now, with this slim but complex book, O’Nan takes a clear-eyed and unsentimental look at an astonishing slice of history — one that is strikingly echoed by the heartbreaking events still unfolding in the Middle East.