Stewart O’Nan’s 16th novel, “City of Secrets,” is an old-school affair. Set in Jerusalem in 1945, it’s a snapshot of Jewish refugees in the city shortly before Israel was founded. Centered on one survivor of the camps, Brand, a man who’s stateless and romantically adrift, it evokes austere postwar existentialist literature. And in its no-nonsense portraits of femme fatales and double-crossers, it could pass at times for a Raymond Chandler novel.
What O’Nan is counting on — and rightly so — is that this will all feel alive and current for readers regardless. After all, disagreements over control of the Holy Land remain persistent, and feeling displaced in a strange land is an evergreen theme. For Brand, a Latvian Jew, Jerusalem is “a puzzle box of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouins and bankers.” And he’s a puzzle, too: He drives a cab to get by, but that’s just a cover for his role in a terrorist cell protesting the British Mandate.
There’s action in the novel — gunplay, train heists, explosions — but “City of Secrets” is about as interior as a thriller can get and still claim to be one. The main tension is in Brand’s discomfort with every identity he tries on, either by choice or by force. His affection for a woman in the cell can’t blunt his sadness over the death of his wife in the camps. His commitment to a Jewish state presses against his revulsion at violence.
O’Nan encapsulates this ambivalence with some sharp turns of phrase that suggest he’s inhaled a stack of noirs: “He wasn’t weak enough to kill himself, but wasn’t strong enough to stop wanting to.” Two cellmates admire a machine gun “as if it were a grandchild.”
This kind of uncertainty has its shortcomings: Brand’s nowhere-man status can at times feel less like a character than a type. His mood is more memorable than anything he does in Jerusalem, or recalls doing in the camps. But Brand is shaken out of his ennui as the plot grows more rollicking, culminating in the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, a flash point in the ongoing tensions between Zionists and England.
Brand’s, er, brand of dry fatalism has been a hallmark of O’Nan’s fiction in recent years, whether he’s writing about an elderly woman’s decline (2011’s “Emily, Alone”), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s late-career collapse (last year’s “West of Sunset”), or a marriage on the rocks (2012’s “The Odds”). The setting of “City of Secrets” is more politically and religiously fraught, of course. But he artfully captures a universal struggle to adapt when, as Brand puts it, “the world was not the world.”
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.
City of Secrets
By: Stewart O'Nan.
Publisher: Viking, 194 pages, $22.