In a remarkably sparse and careful narrative, Steward O’Nan delivers an incisive look into the lives of European Jewish refugees who fought to establish Israel as an independent Jewish state. O’Nan solidly roots his story in the surroundings of the final years of the British Mandate in Palestine, giving his characters a patina of realism, the every-person who could have been. There is no superfluous detail in this novel. Practically every word is given to the reader as a reluctant gift.Throughout, there is a sense that words alone could never be sufficient to explain the events O’Nan describes, and yet a reader can’t help but keep turning the pages, desperate to find out more.
When individuals reluctantly take part in history – not because of some deeply held conviction, but because the paths they expected to travel in their lives have been violently cut off. When individuals struggle to create relationships with friends, lovers, and a national identity, not because they have never been able to do so, but because everyone and everything with whom they were connected was destroyed. These are the characters that populate O’Nan’s novel. Some readers will inevitably find it difficult to relate to them, as O’Nan shows how little they know of themselves, and how little readers can be trusted with details. This can make City of Secrets a frustrating read, especially for readers who prefer descriptive narrative prose and complex character-driven plots hey can really sink their teeth into. Readers who are able to persevere through the silences and mysteries will be rewarded with a deeply thoughtful perspective of human behavior. The deceptive simplicity of O’Nan’s language makes City of Secrets keeps readers at arms length until the final page is turned. It is in completing and reflecting on this book that readers will understand the true extent of O’Nan’s literary power.