Stewart O’Nan’s City of Secrets takes place in post-World War II Jerusalem, under the British Mandate. Jossi Brand is a recent, illegal Jewish immigrant. Haunted by memories of his family, all murdered when the Jews of Riga were executed and buried in mass graves, he is a survivor of internment by Russians and Germans and Russians again, in labor and concentration camps. He does not know why he survived. He might even prefer to be dead, but meanwhile he wants to be of use.
Those of us whose countries fought the Nazis like to think we were the good guys opposing the Holocaust, though any honest appraisal would acknowledge our complicity. Anti-Semitic restrictions on immigration to Britain, the United States and to Palestine trapped Jews in Europe, condemning them to death. This was a known danger. Contemporary writers such a Rebecca West wrote about the concentrations camps before the war. The anti-Semitic laws against the Jews were passed long before the war. So, it is not surprising that the Jews who fled to Palestine, living there illegally because even after the mass genocide of the Holocaust was publicly acknowledged, the British continued to limit immigration to Palestine and had a naval blockade to prevent Jewish refugees from settling there. Think of that for a moment. Even after seeing the films of mass graves, the emaciated survivors and after learning of the staggering efficiency of the Holocaust, the British still refused Jews refuge in their spiritual homeland.
In that atmosphere of resentment and anger, anti-British terror was commonplace, the work of Haganah, Irgun and the Stern group. Brand is a peripheral member of Haganah and, eventually, Irgun. He participates in several missions, part of the movement while working as a taxi cab driver shepherding tourists around the city.
Miraculously, he falls in love with Eva, another survivor who is also haunted by great loss. Known at The Widow, she infiltrates the British administration by sleeping with key officials. While Brand and Eva love each other, it is a love bound by the rules of resistance and secrecy, limited by their ghosts. It is a love that is not spoken of, part of the many secrets in the city.
I enjoyed City of Secrets very much. I have loved O’Nan’s work since I read Snow Angels some twenty years ago. While City of Secrets is a short book, you might say it is “small, but mighty.” Brand grapples with how to live an honest life after being brutalized and broken in the camps, with the ethics of terrorism in pursuit of liberation, with who to find love in a world where he feels undeserving even of life. It is a book that shows. While we are party to his thought processes, these are musings, not explanatory declarations that define him. We are not told what the author wants us to know, he trusts us to infer it from the thoughts and actions of Jossi Brand. There is a wonderful sense of place, we are deep in the moment with Brand, feeling the bumps on the roads and the prickly anxiety of driving in the dark to an unknown destination for unknown reasons. There is a lot of action, but all moving toward a devastating conclusion. I recommend City of Secrets enthusiastically and whole-heartedly.
I received this book in a Goodreads Giveaway drawing. To learn more about Goodreads Giveaways and to enter yourself, check it out here. This is a review of an Advance Readers copy. City of Secrets will be released on April 26, 2016.