March 28, 2010
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!)