Having read Laila Lalami’s short fiction collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, I was thrilled to find out she was working on her first novel, Secret Son. Often when I read first-time novelists, I notice some difficulty with dialogue (my own biggest downfall when I’m writing fiction), awkward clichés, and pages of text that don’t really keep the story moving. Lalami managed to escape all these snares and Secret Son is a joy from the beginning to the end.
On her personal blog, Lalami says she was recently asked why the main character is a man, and her response is “Youssef c’est moi”. One might ask just how a woman writes a book about a man, and if the book qualifies for a review from a feminist perspective. If you ask this, you need to read Secret Son.
The story is set in Morocco and tells of Youssef El-Mekki’s coming of age. Youssef is a young man who lives in the slums of Casablanca. He believes the story his mother has always told him: that his father died in an accident when he was very young. He lives as a fatherless child in a patriarchal society. The shocking discovery that his father is not only alive, but also rich, is a seeming fairy tale come true. His mother Rachida warns him that his heart will be broken, but Youssef moves away from her and into an apartment offered by his father. It is not so difficult to imagine the direction the story takes, and eventually Youssef is sent back to his mother after his father’s wife finds out about his existence.
There is commentary on the desperation of life in Casablanca for poor young men who feel drawn into the “family” of fundamentalist leanings or the escapism of drugs. The difficulties posed when living in multiple cultures and the self-discovery of an alternative way are explored when Youssef’s half-sister Amal studies in the U.S. and falls in love with a non-Muslim Latino. The truth of Youssef’s birth and his mother’s precarious living situation reveals an all-too-common truth of a class-conscious society, where the higher classes abuse the women of the lower classes and then discard them.
Although Youssef is the main character, the exploration of women’s roles—and the often stifling and hypocritical expectations put upon them—is a theme throughout the novel. Amal’s rebellion against her father and cultural norms—by insisting on studying in the United States and living with a non-Muslim, non-Arab man without marriage—is a perfect foil for Rachida’s story of love and betrayal by Youssef’s father Nabil, and the ultimate rebuilding of her life.
One of the most interesting things for me as both a writer and reader is the way the story’s narrative actually changes when different characters are speaking. For example, we see the initial meeting between Youssef and Nabil first through Youssef’s narrative and later through Nabil’s. When Nabil reminisces about the meeting there are inconsistencies between the two descriptions. In another area, a visit by Amal to Rachida also varies markedly between the two versions.
Unlike some books, the narrative does not clearly delineate that this part is from one point of view, and this other part is told from another. Instead, the story unfolds organically and it is up to you to catch these interesting discrepancies. I asked Lalami if it was intentional, and she explained: “The technique of using inconsistent dialogues in different points of view is absolutely willful on my part, and in fact I had to stop my copy-editor from trying to make it consistent. You are absolutely right that this is something that reinforces the fundamental fact that we each hear different things in a conversation.”
Lalami’s first novel is a jewel that takes her previously published short stories out for a longer spin and produces a beautiful and moving expose of Morocco’s duality—a duality that exists for many who are straddling two differing cultures. Lalami has taken the threads of several stories and sewn them together into one whole that shows how our lives entwine and how our choices change each other in both tangible and imperceptible ways.