‘City of Secrets’ by Stewart O’Nan (2016) – 190 pages
A blurb on the back of this novel from fellow novelist Alan Furst said, “’City of Secrets’ will keep you up all night reading.” Sorry, it did not work out that way for me. Instead I would drag through a few pages, anxious to quit the whole time. Then I would stop reading and find out I had read only four pages. You can imagine that reading the entire novel seemed interminable.
Perhaps part of the problem for me was the ambiguity of the novel’s situation. The year is 1946. World War II is over. Jewish refugees from all over Europe are rushing into Jerusalem, the capital of British Palestine. Our hero, the Latvian Brand, is one of these Jewish refugees. He lost his entire family in the Holocaust. Brand survived only “because he was young and could fix an engine.”
For five years during the worst part of World War II, Great Britain allowed only 10,000 Jewish immigrants per year into Palestine. Also about 20-25,000 Jews illegally migrated to Palestine during that period, more power to them. After the war, makeshift groups of Jews worked to undermine British rule by committing terroristic acts in Jerusalem. Brand as a taxi driver was a member of one of these underground groups. Ultimately by 1948, Palestine became the independent state of Israel.
“He wanted the revolution—like the world—to be innocent, when it had never been.”
So do we root for these terrorists against the British government? Not Sure. ‘City of Secrets’ describes the planning and execution of several of these dangerous assignments.
At its best, at times ‘City of Secrets’ reminded me of a Humphrey Bogart movie. Here we have an exotic location in the 1940s and a shady group of people committing desperate acts. Brand does have a girlfriend Eva who is a former actress now working as a call girl at the King David Hotel. Perhaps part of the problem for me is that Brand has experienced all of the trauma of losing his family during the war that he almost seems to be sleepwalking through his life in Jerusalem.
Why does one novel affect you deeply and another leave you cold? I was much affected in a good way by Stewart O’Nan’s ‘Last Night at the Lobster’, the seemingly mundane story of a Red Lobster restaurant closing in Connecticut. However ‘City of Secrets’ left me relatively unmoved, even though the story would seem to be much more dramatic and exciting. I was more affected by the plight of a waitress losing her job in ‘Last Night at the Lobster’ than by a hotel bombing in ‘City of Secrets’. Maybe that’s just me or maybe that’s the way reading novels goes.