Secret Son, by Laila Lalami. Published 2009 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Click here to buy Secret Son from your favorite indie bookstore.
Secret Son is the new novel by Moroccan writer Laila Lalami, author of the lauded short-story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. It's the story of Youssef, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks in present-day Morocco, and follows him as he comes to terms with a family secret- the identity of his father, Nabil, a wealthy businessman- and what it means for his identity and his future.
I was drawn into Youssef's life right away; Lalami creates vivid characters, a beautiful setting and a page-turning plot. Youssef is a ordinary kid trying to figure it all out- university, friends, his goals in life- when Nabil explodes Youssef's expectations. Youssef and Nabil form a tentative relationship based on a form of exchange- Nabil will give Youssef money and a foot in the door of his business, and in exchange Youssef will give Nabil the son he never had. Except Youssef wants more than money- he wants his father's love and acceptance. He wants to be a part of his father's family. But Nabil already has a family, and that may not be so easy.
And Lalami isn't content to leave it at that. While trying to sort out this new development, Youssef and his disaffected friends are drawn into an almost cult-like conservative Muslim religious organization called the Party, which has taken over property that used to be a movie theater. His friend Maati gets a job as a security guard there, and it becomes the friends' new hangout. But someone there has plans for Youssef.
A major theme running through the novel is social class and economic stratification in Morocco, and how one's social class influences one's prospects in life. When Youssef meets Nabil, Youssef quickly comes to expect big changes; whether or not these changes materialize is a driving force behind Youssef's decisions, and, eventually, his fate. I would call the ending pessimistic but perhaps inevitable. On balance, though, I really enjoyed Secret Son. The world Lalami creates for her characters is rich, detailed and accessible, including characters from different strata of Moroccan society who behave convincingly. I think Secret Son would be great for book clubs and for anyone looking for a compelling read; I certainly enjoyed this little look into another culture and another part of the world.
Come back tomorrow for my interview with Laila Lalami!
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.