Secret Son by Laila Lalami


I have a basic policy of trying to read books written by bloggers with whom I have interacted.  I don’t really know these people, and perhaps it is a form of wanting a connection with the famous (used loosely), but I find it interesting to see how their writing works in long from as opposed to blogging.

So when I saw Laila Lalami had a novel coming out (I missed her short story collection when it came out) I got a hold of a copy.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Secret Son turned out to be a fascinating and powerful story. Here is the synopsis from the back cover:

Youssef el-Mekki, a young man of nineteen, is living with his mother in the slums of Casablanca when he discovers that the father he believed to be dead is, in fact, alive and eager to befriend and support him. Leaving his mother behind, Youssef assumes a life he could only dream of: a famous and influential father, his own penthouse apartment, and all the luxuries associated with his new status. His future appears assured until an abrupt reversal of fortune sends him back to the streets and his childhood friends, where a fringe Islamic group, known simply as the Party, has set up its headquarters.

As that plot summary makes clear, the story is a rather simple one: rags-to-riches and back to rags.  And for the first two-thirds of the book that simplicity largely holds true.  And then in the final third the book kicks it up a notch and suddenly we are racing to a spirited climax full of emotion and punch.

More below.

Lalami does a wonderful job of allowing the reader to see the world through the eyes of Youssef.  This provides both an interesting portrait of a young man coming of age in the slums of what we would call the third world but also an illuminating sketch of the environment and culture that surrounds him.

She keeps things simple but there is enough mystery and tension to keep the story moving. And the characters all have an honesty to them; their faults and virtues as complex and intermingled as is the case in the messy reality of life.

Without didactism, in the pejorative politics disguised as fiction sense, the contrasts and tensions of that part of the world are revealed as we get to know Youssef: Western leaning country with large Muslim population; the constant call for economic development but the seeming intractability of poverty; the social problems that develop when large swaths of the young have no hope for a job or a future; a complicated history that is too often ignored despite its impact on everything from language, culture, and religion to the economy, politics, and journalism.

As Youssef becomes aware of the deceptions his mom has used – to construct a workable story for her son in order to leave the ugliness in the past – the basic plot unfolds.  And the issues he wrestles with are really universal: identity, loyalty, the difficult choices families can present as we attempt to make our own way in the world, etc.

This part of the novel is done with a light hand that allows the characters and the setting to take center stage.  But for me the novel seemed to shift into another gear with Part Three.

When the story switches to Youssef’s sister in California and her conflict with their father, Lalami really begins to ratchet up the tension and the drama.  She effectively uses the novels structure so that the readers feels the emotions of the characters almost in real time as it were.

This works in two ways. The first two-thirds are predominately focused on Youssef and it his story we learn.  But in switching the lens more fully to the other character’s perspectives we begin to understand how complex and rooted in history these conflicts are.  It is suddenly not just a story of Youssef and his identity and future.  The whole complicated history of his family is inescapably intertwined with this question.

At the same time the tension escalates as events unfold in rapid succession.  We feel the sudden betrayal as Youssef is forced back to his mother and the world he thought he had left behind.  We feel the impossible choice his sister Amal is forced to make.  We see how each mother is scheming with the intention of protecting their family almost unaware of the often tragic ramifications.  And when Youseff faces his own impossible choice we feel trapped along with him.

Some reviews complain that the climatic events are overtly political in ways the early story was not.  I didn’t find that to be the case.  Instead, they felt like the final unraveling of threads that had been introduced in the early sections.  Buffeted by the emotional roller-coaster Youssef once again seeks the grand gesture only too realize too late it to is an illusionary solution.

The style is mostly un-adorned and simple which, as noted, allows the story and setting to shine.  But Lalami weaves in some perfectly crafted descriptions and phrases.  She describes a character as having the look of “someone for whom the world had not yet taken off its mask.”  What a great description!

And what might be the philosophical foundation of the novel is summed up by Youssef’s mom Rachida:

The universe had an odd sense of fairness; it took away things one did not want to give up, and then gave things one did not ask for.

True and poignant.  And yet her one time lover, Youssef’s father, offers a different take:

People always said that life was unfair, but maybe it was not.  Life had caught up with him and dealt him a sentence of unendurable fairness.

But while fairness, fate, and the choices life presents is a thread throughout, the concept of home is also foundational.  And once again, Lalami offers a great summation when Youssef comes to recognize the central role of his mother:

The only constant in his life was his mother.  She had played the role of the widow, when she had never had a husband; the role of an orphan, when all along she had had a father.  She had done it for him.  She had lied her way through his life, and yet she had also given him the only certainty in it – her love.  In the end, she was his only home.

It was an inexpressable relief to find out the whole truth, but suddenly it did not seem to matter as much as it once had.

Youssef pays a high price for this truth, but its clarity is all the brighter for it.

Secret Son has many traditional elements: coming of age; rags to riches to rags; East meets West; family versus individual identity; fate versus free will; etc.  But it has a simplicity and honesty that makes it fresh and avoids cliche or a preachy tone.

And in this way it reminds me of why I love fiction and literature.  Lalami and I have little in common in terms of background and life experiences.  And I would bet that our political views are nearly diametrically different.

But her fiction transcends this.  Her obvious talent allows her to craft characters and a story that illuminates both a part of the world I am largely ignorant of and at the same time explores universal aspects of the human condition.

Having read her first novel, my initial connection to the author (blogger) will soon, if it has not already, be buried and lost.  And that is to be expected.  Talented author is a much better description.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. I had this one on my list of ‘to be read’ books, but kept pushing it further down the list.
    With your review it has got back in first place again.

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