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City of Secrets
Stewart O'Nan

April 26, 2016 / ISBN 978-0670785964
Fiction - Historical Thriller

Reviewed by Carmen Ferreiro


A moody and disturbing thriller.

After surviving the holocaust, Brand, a Latvian Jew, has moved to Jerusalem where he drives a taxi servicing tourists visiting the Sacred sites. Every Monday he takes Eva to her appointments to bed and, he assumes, spy on British officials. Eva is also a survivor, and a member of the same cell of the Haganah, the Jewish Defence Organization, that helped Brand to come to Jerusalem and provided him with a false identity.

Brand falls for Eva, and maybe Eva for him too, but they are both too damaged by the memories of their previous partners to own their feelings. And even if they dared to do so, the Jerusalem they live in is too ripe with conflict to allow them a respite. There are bombs to be made and deliver, wounded men to be carried to safety, comrades to silence, and an enemy, the British, to harass.

Although the story is told in third person, it stays always on Brand's point of view, which is both good and bad. It's good because it gives immediacy to the story. It's bad because Brand is dealing with survivor guilt over the death of his family and friends during the war, and is unable to reach out and connect with others. This makes it difficult for the reader to relate to him or to any of the characters. The fact that the historical background of the situation in Jerusalem at the time is not explained, and Brand himself is never sure of what is going on within or outside his cell, doesn't help either.

Overall the story is haunting, and the ambiguity of its narrative makes the eternal question of whether violence can be justified in certain situations, and if so, who is qualified to make the call, a powerful and compelling one.

Reviewed 2016