Brand has lost everyone he loves, everything he was – but for his life. He’s fled the camps and managed to make his way to Palestine, to walk the crooked streets of Jerusalem. This is not the city we know, nor is it a city he knows. Under the rule of the British Mandate, Jerusalem is no haven for the Jews. Brand is by definition part of an underground resistance movement that he cannot, does not know. He must re-define himself when the world around him evades definition.
With City of Secrets, Stewart O’Nan takes yet another step into the dark heart of noir, with a story that unfolds as a pre-Cold War spy thriller. Brand is a perfect noir protagonist, who becomes involved in something bigger than himself. He meets a superbly crafted femme fatale, Eva, and falls for her as he searches for himself. The Jews flooding the city are preparing an insurgency. The Brits are the enemy. What we consider our world is upside-down.
City of Secrets is an intense thriller a lovely noir and a surprisingly powerful romance. O’Nan handles all this with a masterful sense of pacing, plotting and prose that keeps a book chock full of action and memorable scenes surprisingly succinct. But O’Nan also packs a remarkably complex moral calculus into the book. It slots in perfectly with the noir elements and the spy-story overtones to create a reading experience that is unique but feels excitingly familiar.
The set pieces here are hair-raising in a number of ways. They’re engagingly cinematic and deeply woven with the qualms Brand feels as he senses how little he knows. But the whole milieu is also cognitively dissonant for the reader, because the Jerusalem of then is so different from the Jerusalem of now. The political upheavals to come after this book have truly inverted the world of this book. But for most readers, those upheavals are the starting point.
City of Secrets is yet another amazing demonstration of Stewart O’Nan’s talent and versatility, and it is one hell of a gripping, engaging reading experience. Chandler, Hammett, Le Carré, and Orson Welles come to mind, but O’Nan is very much on his own here. For all the exotica, it comes down to a simple question and an unfortunate answer; What will you do to define yourself? When you become involved in something bigger than you are, you can easily find someone else doing the defining for you.
I sat down with Stewart O’Nan at KQED Arts to talk about City of Secrets without giving away the secrets of the novel. You can download our conversation by following this link.
Or you can put on your headset and listen in secret right here: