Book review: ‘City of Secrets’ educates, enlightens
April 23, 2016
"City of Secrets" by Stewart O'Nan
I like novels that educate, that teach me something about a history I don't know, reveal a dimension — the human experience — of a history I thought I knew. This week's novel succeeds on both levels.
Stewart O'Nan's "City of Secrets" is set in 1945 Jerusalem, in the midst of the Israeli uprising against British rule. Brand, a 20-something survivor of the Holocaust, has successfully immigrated to Israel. Befriended by a terrorist cell, he takes on a new identity, Jossi. By day, he drives a Peugot taxicab, ferrying tourists to the many holy sites and selling outdated film to supplement his income. By night, he waits for coded telephone calls that summon him on missions.
That nighttime existence is one he can never quite see, never quite fathom. He knows his cellmates' names, but realizes he doesn't really know anything real about them, including their names.
He accepts his assignments, but never knows the assignments of his companions or a mission's objective until it is over. He longs to belong, for more sight in the dark, even as he recognizes that seeing is dangerous, to him and to his "friends."
O'Nan's sparse description of the landscape makes it clear that wide blue skies and wind dominate the day, yet this is a dark story. Jossi struggles with the memory of his lost family, of his days, horrors, in the concentration camps. He struggles with newfound love, a love defined and constrained by the larger "struggle" for independence and its violation of his oath to his wife. He struggles, because he is doing things he can't condone in service of a goal he believes in and desires.
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"How (do) you kill and still call yourself righteous? How (do) you live when you let the people you love die?"
O'Nan tells this story in a taut, short 190 pages. Even as you are compelled to read on, you hold your breath for what happens. And if you, reader, struggle to find answers to these unanswerable questions, you are rewarded for the reading with hope.
Ron Krall is the co-owner of Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in downtown Steamboat Springs.
"City of Secrets" will be available for purchase April 26. Ron Krall is co-owner of Off the Beaten Path.
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