The protean O’Nan (West of Sunset, 2015, etc.) assumes the mantle of Conrad and Greene in a probing, keening thriller set in Jerusalem just after World War II.
Brand, a Latvian Jew, lost his entire family in the Holocaust and is haunted by the passivity with which he watched fellow inmates tortured and killed in the camps. Determined not to be a victim again, he has come to Jerusalem and joined Haganah, one of several resistance groups determined to oust the British from Palestine and establish a Jewish state. Brand’s cover job is driving a taxi, and one of his tasks is to ferry fellow cell member Eva to assignations as a prostitute, through which she gathers information. In their off-hours the pair are lovers, which fills Brand with guilt for betraying his murdered wife. He’s not totally at ease, either, with his cell’s bombings and armed robberies, particularly when Haganah joins forces with the more violently radical Irgun “after calling them dissidents and terrorists and helping the British hunt them down.” The ironies echoing down to today’s Jerusalem are evident, although O’Nan stays meticulously within his 1945-6 framework. As soon as Brand starts taking Eva to the King David Hotel for repeated trysts, even readers unfamiliar with Middle Eastern history will sense that apocalyptic events are impending. When they arrive, in the novel’s grim climax, they make palpable the dilemma of O’Nan’s conflicted protagonist: “He wanted the revolution—like the world—to be innocent, when it had never been.” Though rigorously unsentimental, the text seethes with unresolved emotions, as when Brand celebrates a solitary Passover, missing Eva and pierced by memories of his dead parents and sister. He’s heartbreakingly lonely and appealingly ambivalent in a world where too many people are certain the righteousness of their cause justifies any action.
Economical and deliberately low-key, like all O’Nan’s work, but the complex moral issues it raises linger unsettlingly.