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Review of City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan

O'Nan deftly tells a tale of complex characters in a fascinating city at a pivotal time in history. Brand is an illegal Latvian immigrant in Post WW2 British-Mandate Jerusalem. He has survived German and Russian camps and is the last of his family. He is at times forlorn, even suicidal, and at times sentimental, wanting to become the decent man he once was. He is not a die-hard anti-Mandate activist, but he is aligned to a resistance cell. Brand's false identity papers and stolen Peugeot taxi are supplied by the cell, and he owes them services. He becomes a wheelman and courier for the Irgun, and gets drawn deeper and deeper into the resistance plot, 'played' by the dashing cell-leader, Asher. Brand's love for Eva, another operative and casualty of war, is inevitably tragic. O'Nan creates intrigue and suspense with the best of thriller writers, but he also writes with an understated literary style and enough historical detail to enrich the setting without turning it into a lecture. The book has a melancholy tone, like a film that has had the colour drained. The noirish atmospheric writing is thoroughly enjoyable but I have two frustrations with this book, both to do with Brand. Firstly, we experience (inconsistently) a limited omniscient point of view, which should make us identify closely with Brand, but he remains enigmatic. He seems hollow. But, to be fair, maybe someone who survived the camps would indeed be a shell of their former self. Certainly Brand is not a definitively drawn character, and his struggles with faith, love and duty are credible. At times, I thought Brand was a reinterpretation of one of Hemingway's "code-heroes", but he never lives up to this archetype. Should he? Brand is a survivor, not because of virtue, but because he is fundamentally passive. This is my second frustration. Brand is more an observer than a protagonist. Again, to be fair, this is credible. People probably do survive hard times by keeping their head down and staying out of trouble. But Brand has little impact on any aspect of the plot, personal, political, historical or in any other way. He is affected, to an uncertain degree, by his involvement with the Irgun, but O'Nan completely defies any narrative form that would lead a reader to expect that a protagonist's choices or actions would have some bearing on the outcome. Perhaps there are some moral observations about the inevitably tragic consequences of getting caught up in terror and conflict, or that decent men are often just naive pawns in others' causes, but there is not the traditional arc that readers might expect. Brand opens a window into the fascinating world of Jerusalem in 1946, allowing the reader to be affected by his vantage point, but remaining detached enough that he affects little in that world. Don't expect heroics. Brand is literally a modern day evocation of the "Wandering Jew", doomed to live on, forever witnessing the misery of a broken world. Some might call it unsatisfying. Others might call it intriguing.


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