Monday, June 27, 2016

Review: City of Secrets

Summary: From master storyteller Stewart O’Nan, a timely moral thriller of the Jewish underground resistance in Jerusalem after the Second World War

In 1945, with no homes to return to, Jewish refugees by the tens of thousands set out for Palestine. Those who made it were hunted as illegals by the British mandatory authorities there and relied on the underground to shelter them; taking fake names, they blended with the population, joining the wildly different factions fighting for the independence of Israel. City of Secrets follows one survivor, Brand, as he tries to regain himself after losing everyone he’s ever loved. Now driving a taxi provided—like his new identity—by the underground, he navigates the twisting streets of Jerusalem as well as the overlapping, sometimes deadly loyalties of the resistance. Alone, haunted by memories, he tries to become again the man he was before the war—honest, strong, capable of moral choice. He falls in love with Eva, a fellow survivor and member of his cell, reclaims his faith, and commits himself to the revolution, accepting secret missions that grow more and more dangerous even as he begins to suspect he’s being used by their cell’s dashing leader, Asher. By the time Brand understands the truth, it’s too late, and the tragedy that ensues changes history. A noirish, deeply felt novel of intrigue and identity written in O’Nan’s trademark lucent style, City of Secrets asks how both despair and faith can lead us astray, and what happens when, with the noblest intentions, we join movements beyond our control. -- Viking

I decided to review the novel CITY OF SECRETS by Stewart O'Nan as part of Mystery Mondays, not because it was a traditional mystery but more because it was a unique type of thriller. Many would find that this novel is probably more literary fiction than thriller, but in many ways, it has all of the elements of a great suspense story. And since Mystery Mondays is "my" feature, I decided that it works!

CITY OF SECRETS takes place in Jerusalem in 1945 immediately following World War II. During this time, Jerusalem was under British occupation; and many Jewish refugees were sneaking into Palestine. The British Mandatory authorities were trying to track them down, so these people were forced to take new names and hope the underground provided cover for them. One such person was Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jew, who was the only survivor in his family after the horrors of the concentration camps.

Brand is now a taxi driver who works with the Haganah, a Jewish resistance group who is fighting for the independence of Israel. He is no longer the man he was prior to the war. He is wracked with guilt and loneliness, and he tries to find comfort in Eva, a prostitute who is also a survivor. He decides to focus his life on the dangerous missions that the Haganah carries out; however, he is never quite sure who or what to trust... or even what role he is being asked to play.

As tensions mount and Brand begins to realize the truth of his "friend" and leader, he realizes that it might already be too late. His cell plays a major role in an event that will forever change history in the battle for Jewish independence.

I thought CITY OF SECRETS was an excellent novel. There is no doubt that Mr. O'Nan is an amazing writer. His prose is eloquent and his characters are richly developed, and he managed to create a suspense filled novel. However, this novel rose to the next level for me because it was also incredibly interesting. I wasn't familiar with much of the history referenced in this novel including the bombing of the King David Hotel. (I probably should be embarrassed to admit that!)

I actually finished CITY OF SECRETS when I was in the car traveling to Washington, DC, for our vacation a few weeks ago. I was truly blown away by this book, so much so that I began researching the actual historical events that took place in this novel. I think I drove my family crazy reading to them what I was discovering about the British Mandate, the various Jewish resistance movements, and even the bombing of the King David Hotel and the potential political fallout. If a book moves me to start learning and continue thinking, then I consider that a great thing!

But that's not the only reason I appreciated this novel so much. Mr. O'Nan's writing is outstanding. I was deeply impressed with how he portrayed all of the historical parts of this novel. It was apparent that he did his research. I also loved how the tension in the story just kept building. Honestly, I couldn't put down this book once things got going!

However, even more impressive was how he created these intriguing characters and brought them to life. Brand was extremely complex and I definitely felt a great deal of compassion for him. Not only did he lose his entire family in the concentration camps, but he was attempting to move on... all alone, in a new country, hiding from authorities, with no one to trust. He was even forced to change his name. Brand was grasping to start over while also trying to hold on to the man he was before the war. It was extremely sad to consider Brand's new way of life, and I was desperate for him to find some happiness.

Another interesting dynamic in CITY OF SECRETS was the relationship Brand had with fellow cell members. On one hand, I was glad that he fell in love with Eva, and was able to learn a little about her past, but on the other hand, I wasn't sure about her real motivations. I certainly was hoping that she shared his feelings.

I also found his relationship with the cell leader, Asher, to be fascinating. Brand drove a cab that was used for many of the group's dangerous activities, and it appeared more and more likely that Asher was manipulating Brand for his own gain. As Brand began to realize things, it became apparent that he couldn't really trust anyone.

I do think CITY OF SECRETS would make a great book club selection. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find formal discussion questions; however, I think there's a great deal to talk about on your own. Some of the themes you might want to discuss include grief, war, the plight of the Jews and the Palestinians after World War II... and today, secrets, love, and many, many moral issues.

Overall, I think CITY OF SECRETS was an outstanding read. Highly recommended to fans of literary fiction, suspense novels, and literary fiction.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.


bermudaonion said...

I've heard so many good things about O'Nan's writing but haven't tried it yet. I'm actually fascinated with that time and place so this sounds like a good one for me to start with. Also, I'm jealous you can read in the car!

Savvy Verse & Wit said...

This is one that I'll have to pick up. I love O'Nan's writing. This is one that I missed out on somehow...