cover image City of Secrets

City of Secrets

Stewart O’Nan. Viking, $22 (208p) ISBN 978-0-670-78596-4

Jerusalem under British occupation in the years immediately following World War II serves as the backdrop for O’Nan’s (West of Sunset) intriguing new novel, a Conradian espionage thriller leavened with existential introspection. Its protagonist is Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jew who survived the concentration camps owing to his skills as a mechanic, and who now drives a cab for a living. One of the many refugees who snuck into Palestine in the late 1940s and lived an underground existence under an assumed name, Brand has drifted into a cell of the Haganah, a resistance group fighting for Jewish independence that begins sending him on increasingly dangerous and desperate missions, the tragic outcome of which seems inevitable. As depicted by O’Nan, Brand’s world is one of murky uncertainties, where betrayal by cell members is as likely as arrest by the authorities, and the secretiveness of resistance operations sows suspicion and paranoia among the cell members. Brand’s personal psychological torment compounds these effects: the only member of his family to survive the war, he is wracked with pangs of survivor’s guilt, and his earnest attempts to regain his sense of dignity through his love for Eva, a prostitute who has also lost everything, are rebuffed out of his fear that he’ll become too close to her. O’Nan’s novel works on several levels, but it is especially memorable as a story where the tortured emotions of its characters are indistinguishable from the turmoil of the chaotic events that overwhelm them. Agent: David Gernert, Gernert Company. (Apr.)