Review: Lalia Lalami’s Secret Son

I loved Lalia Lalami’s first book, Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits. It’s either a novel or a collection of linked short stories — I’ve seen it called both — about four young Moroccans’ individual attempts to flee their homeland for the opportunities of Europe. It’s a fascinating book, full of vivid details about Moroccan life, and you feel like you know exactly why those characters make the decisions they do. Secret Son, Lalami’s new novel, focuses on one young man living in the slums of Casablanca who thinks his dreams are coming true when he discovers his biological father is a wealthy businessman. However, his changed circumstances strain his relations with his family and friends, and bring him unwelcome attention from a local Islamic group.

Lalami again surrounds us with the sights, sounds and smells of Morocco, but goes deeper into the circumstances of her protagonist’s life, and the political realities of Morocco at the present time. Youssef el-Mekki believes his father dead. He grows up poor, but with an unassailable sense of his place in the world stemming from the family history his mother teaches him. Everything comes crumbling down when he discovers his father is not only alive, but a wealthy industrialist. Despite his success in winning a place at college, Youssef has to scratch the itch of where he really comes from, and he contrives to meet him.

Nabil Amrani, Youssef’s father, harbors a secret pain: he has no sons, only a daughter away at college in the US. Initially Youssef is a blessing, the answer to his secret prayers. But, when his family learn of the son, conflict arises over the questions of inheritance and position others thought settled. Youssef must choose which parts of his impoverished, but rooted existence, to hold on to (if any) and how much he is prepared to risk chasing the dream of the opportunities and family life his distant father might provide.

The narrative drive of Secret Son is more ambitious than the relatively straightforward storytelling of Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits, and the ending has a twist that feels perfectly real yet isn’t obvious from early on. All in all, Secret Son is a captivating story, told with fierce passion and acute understanding, which provides a vivid and eye-opening look inside contemporary Morocco.

Be sure to check out Lalia Lalami’s great blog. She recommends some fabulous books there.

Watch the book trailer for Secret Son

Lalia Lalami reads from Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits

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