If the fine American fiction writer Stewart O’Nan is any indication, authors who adhere too strictly to writing only what interests them—and, they presumably hope, their readers—may well do so at their professional peril.
O’Nan counts among his most ardent supporters bestselling authors such as Stephen King, with whom he has cowritten two books, and Dennis Lehane. Yet, over the last two decades, his tight, spare novels on a variety of subjects and featuring all manner of intriguing characters rarely have found an initial readership of more than a few thousand. The result has been the move by O’Nan, time and again, from one unsatisfied publishing house to another.
O’Nan’s latest novel, City of Secrets, may well change that trajectory. It most certainly should.
City of Secrets is at once a riveting historical thriller based on true events in the Middle East, and a solemn meditation on humanity—in this case, the search for purpose, any purpose, in the wake of unspeakable evil. O’Nan’s combination of a thriller plot with the intense moral struggle of his lead character results in an engrossing reading experience, and a book readers likely will find themselves placing in the hands of others with the admonition that they, too, must experience it.
In City of Secrets, O’Nan uses the viewpoint of his protagonist, Brand, to depict a little known chapter in the struggle to create the Jewish nation of Israel. Brand, a Jewish survivor of the Nazi death camps in which his loved ones perished, has washed up in post-World War II Palestine. Unmoored by grief for his slaughtered wife and family, Brand fights the ever-present urge to commit suicide by joining an underground cell working to destabilize British rule in the region.
Brand finds solace in the arms of Eva, another emotionally damaged survivor of the war and a fellow member of his cell. When his work as a taxi driver cruising the streets of Jerusalem proves particularly useful to the underground, Brand is drawn ever deeper into the revolutionaries’ covert operations. As the missions in which he participates become increasingly desperate, he is torn by his loyalty to the cause and his increasing love for Eva.
An author of wide-ranging tastes, O’Nan long has taken readers deep into subjects he finds fascinating—from the celebrated life of F. Scott Fitzgerald in last year’s historical novel, West of Sunset, to the far-less-celebrated but, in O’Nan’s assured hands, equally engaging life of a restaurant manager working a chain eatery’s closing night in 2008’s Last Night at the Lobster.
O’Nan is known for his ability to bring characters and scenes to life with the lightest strokes of his word paintbrush. Indeed, Los Angeles Times reviewer Susan Salter Reynolds called Last Night at the Lobster a “Zen koan of a book.”
Readers of City of Secrets may well wonder how many words and passages O’Nan must have written and discarded to reach the lean, moving portrayal of Brand and Eva he commits to the fewer than 200 pages he uses to tell their heartbreaking tale. What really matters, however, is that every word and sentence in City of Secrets counts, making O’Nan’s latest a slender book of powerfully emotional weight.
Scott Graham is the National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of the National Park Mystery Series for Torrey House Press. The third book in the series, Yellowstone Standoff, was released in June. Visit Graham at scottfranklingraham.com.