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In 1945, with no homes to return to, Jewish refugees set out for Palestine by the tens of thousands. Those who made it were hunted as illegals by the British mandatory authorities there and relied on the underground to shelter them; taking fake names, they blended with the population, joining the wildly different factions fighting for the independence of Israel.
City of Secrets follows one survivor, Brand, as he tries to regain himself after losing everyone he's ever loved. Now driving a taxi provided - like his new identity - by the underground, he navigates the twisting streets of Jerusalem as well as the overlapping, sometimes deadly loyalties of the resistance. Alone, haunted by memories, he tries to become again the man he was before the war - honest, strong, capable of moral choices. He falls in love with Eva, a fellow survivor and member of his cell; reclaims his faith; and commits himself to the revolution, accepting secret missions that grow more and more dangerous even as he begins to suspect he's being used by their cell's dashing leader, Asher. By the time Brand understands the truth, it's too late, and the tragedy that ensues changes history.
A noirish, deeply felt novel of intrigue and identity written in O'Nan's trademark lucent style, City of Secrets asks how both despair and faith can lead us astray and what happens when, with the noblest intentions, we join movements beyond our control.
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By Dubi on 03-28-18
Redundant, Exasperating, Frustrating
Stewart O'Nan is an accomplished writer. Why on earth would he want to rewrite Elie Wiesel and claim it as his own? Primarily resembling Wiesel's Day, O'Nan gets inside the soul of Brand, an illegal immigrant into Palestine in the aftermath of WWII, the sole survivor of his family, suffering survivor's remorse. In order to stay in Palestine, he has to join a terrorist cell of the Irgun, participating in increasingly dangerous missions.
Mixed into this Day-like story are Brand's reminiscences of concentration camp, which echoes Wiesel's Night. These memories, doled out in bread-crumb-size doses, never add up to even a slice of Brand's life. His cover in Jerusalem is as a taxi driver who ferries tourists around -- the number of times he mentions taking fares to see the view from the Mount of Olives adds up to more words than what he tells us about his holocaust experience. It's as exasperating as it is frustrating.
Now that's how I felt, being so close to the material, as the son of Holocaust survivors, born in Israel. Most everyone with greater personal distance will not have a clue about the politics of Palestine after the war, before Israeli independence. Another flabbergasting, frustrating choice -- Brand is as confused about it as the reader is, so why not have him learn about it and thus explain it to the reader (having padded this already very short novel with far too many repetitive details about driving around Jerusalem).
It pains me to slam a novel that is so close to my family's experience, that I really wanted to be a door that could open this period of time for others. But it is a waste of time. My parents' stories -- even their post-war tales as refugees trying to get to Palestine, directly related to this book -- are more interesting than this (and they were regular people, not terrorists). Do yourself a favor and read Wiesel instead.
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