by Laila Lalami
Publisher : Vicking, Penguin
Review : Grace
Secret Son is a beautifully told tale of a teenage boy growing up in Morocco. Simple, you might think, but Secret Son is far from simple. Lalami writes about big issues with delicate clarity and addresses these issues on an individual, familial and socio-political level. Issues of identity, belonging, secrecy, morality and ideology are all covered on different levels, and pleasing subtle parallels can be drawn between them. The most obvious parallel is between the protagonist’s personal confusion over his identity and the clash of traditional vs modern culture in Casablanca. But there are many more echoes and resonances to be discovered.
The story revolves around one family who live, divided, in Casablanca. One half live in the modern, French part of Casablanca, while the other half live in the slums. They are estranged and it is Youssef El Mekki, a 19 year old student, who yearns to uncover the secrets and lies that make up his identity; who is his father? Who is his mother? Where does he belong?
Youssef is searching for his identity, for ‘a rich identity of which he could be proud’. Youssef’s searching is made more chaotic because he lives in a fractured, displaced society – one that struggles to find its own identity in the battle between a ‘blind love for the West’, and in the words of Hatim, (leader of The Party, a fundamentalist Islamic group that ‘seduces’ and ‘mezmarises’ Youssef) ‘“regaining the purity we have lost”’.
The characters all struggle with a sense of loneliness and broken relationships, and there is a hint of family history repeating itself in terms of absent fathers; the theme of fatherhood becomes an important one. Equally, the character’s lies and secrets are important, and Lalami unravels these oppressing lies brilliantly. The characters are almost released from oppression when the truth comes out, for example, Youssef’s mother Rachida experiences relief when she had the opportunity to ‘share her story’ with her son.
Secret Son starts with great pace and drama as the first rain in 3 years floods the slum Youssef and his mother live in. The description of the first drops of water falling from the sky into their soup is wonderful. Then, as the rain continues to pour we see a town destroyed, people displaced and in need of help.
On this background we are allowed to observe the relationship between Youssef and his mother; the silences, the distrust, their hopes, the love and the pain. We follow Youssef as he struggles to find out the truth about his father, and we realise how much his sense of self, purpose and identity rest on his relationship with his father.
After the drama of the first chapter, Youssef’s journey of self-discovery is gently told with a focus on his daily routine and encounters with friends, old and new. The narration has a pleasing mundanity, which greatly exaggerates the subtleties of the relationship between Youssef and his (disillusioned) friends and his family. Lalami’s third person narrative lulls the reader into a soft rhythm.
Then, the final three chapters of the novel take a dramatic turn, with crisis, terrorism and murder. Lalami executes this well, but it’s a massive change of tone in the last stages of a very gentle story. I can’t decide if this is a welcome change, or an incongruous make-believe ending to a realistic tale.
Secret Son is both enjoyable and interesting to read, with many insightful cultural observations. Even though the narrative pace is a bit unsettling, it is well worth reading.