City of Secrets, by Stewart O’Nan

City of Secrets
City of Secrets

Questioning the effectiveness of and motivations for terrorism usually isn’t hard. Our media and politicians and most people on the street would condemn acts of terror as soon as word broke. But what if we can sympathize with the terrorists? In City of Secrets, Stewart O’Nan asks us to consider the point of view of terrorists. In this case, the terrorists are members of the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Stern Gang—groups that repeatedly attacked British soldiers and Palestinian civilians in their fight to create a Jewish homeland. City of Secrets is narrated by Brand, a Latvian Holocaust survivor loosely affiliated with the Haganah, in the months before the King David Hotel bombing.

Brand is a recent immigrant to Palestine. (Israel wouldn’t exist as a nation for a few years yet.) He lost his entire family in a Nazi massacre and spent an unknown number of years in a concentration camp. As City of Secrets progresses, we learn a bit more about Brand’s past. We know that he suffers a heavy burden of self-imposed guilt. He feels guilty for surviving and he feels guilty for not doing anything when he saw a sort-of friend brutally killed by a Nazi camp guard.

The main thrust of City of Secrets is Brand’s work with the Haganah. His day job is driving a taxi, but it’s really a cover. He drives for other members of his cell on missions (small bombings, acts of sabotage, etc.). His enthusiasm for the work waxes and wanes over the course of the book. At first, he’s excited. Brand feels good fighting against someone; it assuages his feelings of guilt for doing nothing during the way. But then he starts to see the costs of the Haganah’s actions in pain and blood and starts to wonder if it’s worth the stain on his soul.

City of Secrets is a brief novel, almost too brief for the big questions it tackles. I honestly wish it would have been longer, so that the characters had more time to develop and so that I could learn more about the place and the time. I would also have liked more time to think about the question of terrorism. These days, we automatically condemn it—but we Westerners are the targets. The descendents of the people who joined and fought with the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Stern Gang are America’s allies in the Middle East. From the point of view of history, they could be considered freedom fighters. Is terrorism just a matter of perspective and time? City of Secrets pushes us towards the question, but then leaves us hanging.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 26 April 2016.

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