Friday, May 12, 2023

City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O'Nan does not waste time, or your attention. This short, sharp novel begins thus:

When the war came Brand was lucky, spared death because he was young and could fix an engine, unlike his wife Katya and his mother and father and baby sister Giggi, unlike his grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.

It is late 1945. Brand survived camps and everything else, from Russians and Germans, to make it from Latvia, where there was nothing left for him, to Jerusalem, where he could not arrive legally. He works as a cab driver, and is part of a underground cell agitating for an independent Israeli state and the end of British rule.

He is a Jew. He is a terrorist, by most definitions. He is profoundly damaged and haunted by his dead wife. He admires Asher, the head of his cell, and distrusts some of their allies as his group aligns with more aggressive, violent elements of the resistance. He is trying not to be in love with Eva, an older actress in their cell who he drives to various events and assignations and who he also sleeps with in what he tries not to think of a a parody of a normal relationship.

He is a man who wants to understand things, to work out the details. He does that reflexively, all the time. And that's dangerous in a revolutionary cell, where each person knows only a few small things and does what they are asked to further the cause without understanding why or even much of what.

City of Secrets runs through a few momentous months in Brand's life, from late 1945 through early 1946. Its publisher billed it as a thriller, which is not wrong, but it's a literary novel more than anything. It's not about what Brand does, but about who he is, what he decides and how he changes.

O'Nan, in my experience, is always a powerful, emotionally resonant writer, no matter what his subject matter. And his subjects vary hugely: 19th century undertakers, dead teenagers, spree killers, middle-aged married couples looking for a big win, closing restaurants. This 2016 novel is a good first book for new O'Nan readers, with some nods to genre fiction - historical, thriller - as hooks for readers who like those things. But I would recommend all of his books; I've been hugely impressed by all the ones I've read and they keep me looking at the shelf of the rest thinking about when to get to the next one.

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