Morocco is underexplored in English language fiction.Most novels with which American readers are familiar are likely to focus on Anglo foreigners traveling to or settling in the country, such as in The Sheltering Sky or Hideous Kinky.Laila Lalami’s debut novel, Secret Son (Algonquin; paperback March 2010) would have merit, then, if all it did was explore Morocco from the inside out: from the perspective of contemporary Moroccans rather than through an exoticized traveler’s lens.But Lailami, an ambitious and meticulous writer whose terrain is as emotional as it is geographic, achieves much more with this barebones, layered and daringly bleak exploration of one man—Youssef El Mekki—and his progressive defeat within a ruthless system.

Youssef is an average young man from a (fictional) poor area just outside Casablanca.Though he is fatherless—his mother, a hardworking and noble but secretive woman, has told him his father is dead—his struggles and concerns are similar to his peers’: to elevate himself and his mother from the poverty of their station by attending university, where he majors in English literature and nurses secret fantasies of being an actor.Though it seems clear to the reader that his academic major is an impractical one, we begin the novel much in the same mindset as its young protagonist: idealistically in the dark concerning exactly how bleak Youssef’s prospects really are.Only when he learns that his father is not dead, but was in fact a married man when he impregnated Youssef’s mother, does Youssef’s wild ascent among the Moroccan elite begin to signal the inevitable and devastating downfall that will later come his way.

One of the great strengths of this novel is Lalami’s layering of perspectives: male and female, elite and poor.The scope of the novel’s Morocco is a wide one, extending to the expat experience in the United States, the hotel industry, university cliques, the inside workings of fringe political groups, and the complex and varying ways in which different “types” of Moroccans view the role of Islam in their lives.Sometimes, the same event is actually told twice from different points of view—the most interesting trick of Lalami’s in these moments is the way dialogue itself often slightly changes, to indicate the differences in characters’ memories and perceptions, even though the point of view is always third person.If the overarching theme of this novel is Truth, what such scenes illustrate is that there is no such thing: there is only where you happen to be standing, and the angle from which you survey the world.Youssef, his half-sister Amal, his mother Rachida, and his father Nabil all see the world in sharply divergent terms, yet each feels not just credible but real—valid—when taking its turn on the page.If Rachida serves a bit as the moral conscience of the story (as well as being more able to sniff out bullshit than the others), the vanities of Youssef and Nabil also feel familiar, recognizable, human.Amal, the privileged daughter of Nabil’s marriage, would have been an easy target for lampooning in a less complex novel, but instead her quest for identity, responsibility and love come off every bit as sympathetically as Youssef’s struggles.

It is interesting to note that, while Secret Son never comes off as heavy-handed or preachy in terms of Islamic gender politics, the role of the women of this novel does enrich both its heart and its depth considerably.Though the protagonist is male and the world he inhabits—given Morocco’s customs—is extremely testosterone heavy, the addition of Amal’s story, plus the way Lalami handles the theme of motherhood, makes this more than a political novel synonymous with a traditionally male definition of “politics.”Youssef’s deeply resonant relationship with his mother—which is conveyed largely through actions, since the two have difficulty communicating openly with one another—is the emotional core of the book.This is so true that, when Youssef finally meets the grim fate the novel has been leading towards, it is Rachida both he and the reader would seem to grieve for most deeply.Her immense sacrifices, all to ensure the safety and future of her only child, have come to nothing, and this serves as the personal tragedy that accompanies the larger Tragedy at play in her country.

If this skillful and subtle novel struggles with anything, it is perhaps that Youssef’s outcome can at times feel too predetermined: each circumstance invariably resolves itself in the fashion most detrimental to his future.There are moments when certain steps along the path spiraling downward do not feel entirely organic, but rather “necessary” for the plot (and the psychological exploration of Youssef that accompanies it.)Most notably—without giving too many spoilers away in a story full of compelling twists and turns—Youssef’s father’s response when his wife and daughter discover Youssef’s existence feels a bit extreme (especially because Lalami has developed Nabil with such nuance previously.)Yet even a small alteration of his father’s behavior could have made such an enormous impact on Youssef’s state of mind that later events, notably his vulnerability to a radical Islamic group called “The Party,” might seem less likely . . . and so at times the “free will” of the characters feels unavoidably sacrificed to the novel’s larger aims of what must happen to ensure Youssef’s ultimate outcome.

Still, Secret Son grips tightly and does not let go.What could have been a didactic tale is instead always given an unexpected and complicating spin by the switching of characters’ perspectives, a change in setting, or—especially—Youssef’s emotional triumph near the novel’s end.Though he cannot change either his own fate or the fate of those “the Party” has targeted, he has redeemed himself in ways not insignificant, and thus proves himself, in the eleventh hour, worthy of his mother’s sacrifices.Youssef—like all real human beings—is far more than the sum of his parts.

Revisit these gems: Old faves I recalled while enjoying Secret Son.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Though this bestseller does not need one more plug, Lalami’s novel bears conceptual similarities to Hosseini’s second novel, which was far superior to The Kite Runner and admirably chronicles the reality of women in Afghanistan, following a character (Mariam) who is both doomed and redeemed, like Youssef.

The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles: Set amid the 1954 nationalist uprising, this “stranger in a strange land” novel also explores the inner workings of Moroccan culture and does what great novels do: shocks the reader with its relevance to today’s events.

A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, Ed. Stacy Bierlein.Lalami is one of the 30 international writers showcased in this IPPY gold medal fiction anthology, where “culture” is defined through relationships.Also includes work by Josip Novakovich, Nathan Englander, Wanda Coleman, Etgar Keret.

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami.This acclaimed collection showcases Lalami’s facility at exploring diverse points of view, and was her debut book in English: a topic she discusses in some eloquent length at the end of Secret Son, in a conversation with the author.

Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward.Focusing on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, this novel successfully personalizes larger political issues and juggles layering truths and points of view like Secret Son.

(Note: Lalami gives her own reading list of Moroccan and African lit in the back of Secret Son, citing such writers as Leila Abouzeid, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Bensalem Himmich, and the feminist sociologist Fatima Mernissi, among many others—this book would be worth buying for the reading list alone!)

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GINA FRANGELLO is the fiction editor of The Nervous Breakdown. She is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (forthcoming from Algonquin in Feb 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is also the Sunday Editor at The Rumpus, and was the longtime editor of the literary magazine Other Voices, as well as the co-founder and executive editor of its book imprint, Other Voices Books (now an imprint of Dzanc Books). Her short stories have been published in many lit mags and anthologies, including A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, and Fence, and her essays, journalism, reviews and interviews have appeared in such venues as the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post and the Chicago Reader. In her nonexistent spare time, she runs a writing program out of Mexico, <a href="http://www.othervoicesqueretaro.com/" Other Voices Queretaro.

23 responses to “New to the Party: Spotlight on Secret Son, by Laila Lalami”

  1. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks for posting this Gina. Love your list of recommendations–will have to work my down it!

  2. Thanks, girl–hey, I’m going to be in NYC from May 19-23 and would so love to meet you! I’m reading with Robin Antalek (Kimberly Wetherell emceeing!) on May 19th . . . if there’s any hope you can come!

    Yeah, I’m so happy to get to do book talk on a regular basis with the new column. I used to review books a lot as a freelancer but cut way down on that about 10 years ago because I just didn’t feel passionately about much of what the newspapers/magazines assigned me–I love being able to focus on books that I’m actually excited about here!

  3. Jessica Blau says:

    Oh, I’ll definitely try to come that weekend. I might even be able to make it in the middle of the week so I can go to the reading–very exciting!

    Yes, you’re a great book reviewer. I find it really hard to review books–it’s a skill I don’t have. So much I can’t do in the world. Wish I could walk on my hands, too. Seriously. Would love to have arm strength!

  4. Ah, “so much I can’t do in the world . . .”
    Where does one start. Maybe with: “Do a chin-up” and lead to “pass Trigonometry” to “play any musical instrument” to “read a fucking map” to “run.” Wow, yeah, I wish I could run. People who run are totally cool.
    But when we toast to something in NYC, we can toast to all the stuff we CAN do. Like . . . uh . . . write and drink. Which is definitely something!

  5. If it’s good like “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” then it must be darn good…

    June 5th! Party’s on!

  6. I’m so excited for Bakersfield, Nick! Yes, June 5! Zoe and I will be there, by car, by bus, somehow! (I’m bringing lots of water–if anyone could get lost in the desert on an hour and a half drive and end up dehydrated next to a cactus somewhere, it’d be me . . . note my above comment to Jessica Anya about not knowing how to read a map . . .)

  7. Irene Zion says:

    Gina,

    Terrific book review!
    You can write anything, can’t you?

  8. Judy Prince says:

    My gratitude, Gina, for your full and careful review of Laila Lalami’s SECRET SON. Morocco is a culture and a people I’ve often wanted to know about, in this way, but needed a leading. I appreciate the list of recommended books, as well.

    • I’ve only been to Morocco twice, a combined total of a few weeks, but it was my favorite of any country I’ve ever visited–Judy, you should go!!!

      • Judy Prince says:

        Gina—awesome that Morocco was your favourite of any country you’d visited! My infatuation came from the Best Food Ever in a northside Chicago Moroccan restaurant. My three friends and I shared our appetizers, entrees and desserts, and ALL of them were beyond fantastic. The chef was a female, whom we never saw, but I engaged the server-owner, a Moroccan, in conversation about his native country, his dad, mom, friends, memories. Been in several Moroccan restaurants since then, but they don’t come close, sadly, to the Chicago one. Now I’m trying to get m’sel’ invited to Moroccan homes so I can get some excellent recipes and tips on food prep. (Can you tell I’ve just read Gloria’s piece on gardening and cooking and it’s before breakfast here?) hee hee

        • Judy–what was the restaurant?! I’m here in Chicago! I want to go there, like, now!

        • Judy Prince says:

          You’re in Chicago, Gina?! Great! I just googled for Moroccan restaurants far northside Chicago, but no names or locations fit exactly. However, here’re by far the most high-recommends by foodies for Shokran Moroccan Restaurant: http://www.yelp.com/biz/shokran-moroccan-restaurant-chicago

          If you check it out, do please let me know how it is!

        • It sounds AMAZING! Thanks!
          There’s a sweet Moroccan-run restaurant in the Belmont and Sheffield area, on Clark street. I think it’s called Andalous. Was that it by chance? The neighborhood is pretty “hip” so the place tends to be crowded, but it still has a family-run feel and the owner often stops to chat and such. Though I haven’t been there in a few years and things change so fast around here . . .

        • Judy Prince says:

          Andalous it is, Gina. Thank you so very much!! Its website says that the chefs, indeed, are all females, and I now remember that it was on Clark Street. This video really nailed it, showing the inside where I recall sitting with my friends near the window: http://www.andalous.com/abc7190north.asp

          Oh you fortunate woman to be able to eat there!

  9. Simon Smithson says:

    Fascinating, Gina – both the main title itself and the spin-off titles that came up for you. More for the list!

  10. Gloria says:

    This is a thorough, sound review and I feel like its a book I would love to read. I probably wouldn’t have heard of it (at least not any time soon) had I not read this. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Gloria–yes, that’s a big hope for all 4 of the TNB book review columns: talking about books that are not getting quite enough attention in the media, which these days is all but a few blockbuster titles, really.

  11. Gina– Having read ( and enjoyed) Lalami’s first book — I was excited when I saw you would be taking on SECRET SON. What a thoughtful and detailed review — can’t wait to pick up this book and add it to the TBR pile. Also delighted to see that you mentioned another favorite book of mine: Amanda Eye Ward’s FORGIVE ME– that deserves a re-read for sure. I fear the pile is close to the dangerous marker — time to make smaller subset piles — especially with this new TNB book review feature since I’m positive there will be more “unable to pass up” books to come!

  12. LOVED Forgive Me! I have to say, that novel really snuck up on me. I started it thinking it was going to be a little chick lit for my tastes–“hardened career woman finds love” and all that . . . and while there were small elements of that in the novel, it ended up being such a tumultuous, multi-layered and morally complicated story about the past and risk and forgiveness and grief . . . wow. It blew me away.

    • Funny– I had the exact same reaction when I read the first few pages — and then it changed my mind. I love when I am wrong and something magical like that ends up happening. Have you read HOW TO BE LOST?

  13. I haven’t, Robin, but I take it that I should?

  14. admin says:

    Well done, Gina! This book is sitting on my nightstand. Gonna have to crack it soon.

  15. […] *Solicited book deals, marketing grants . . . it all seemed too good to be true.Because it was.  *Why do Beautiful People have such sucky marriages? *In which the author charges herself with Assholedom, and the jury is out. *In which the author’s husband is dubbed the Tommy Lee of TNB. *Have you made an ass of yourself recently? Check into rehab, and all will be forgiven. *In which the author describes her vacation from hell on the Island of Pain. *In which the author describes her father’s 88 strange, colorful and contradictory years on earth (Part 1 of 3). *And then her seriously old, half-deaf father wants to know why the hell the neighbors have fake rats in their backyard (Part 2 of 3). *She then compares her life to living across the street from The Sopranos (Part 3 of 3) .  *You can listen to her here, in Cup of TNB – Episode 10.  *Her brand new book review column, called New to the Party.  […]

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