Laila Lalami's debut novel Secret Son enters the streets and houses of both the wealthy and poor of modern day Casablanca. Through the eyes of characters young and old, Lalami works to illustrate the struggles of identity and the reconciliation of class, politics and beliefs within Morocco.
In the slums of Casablanca, Youssef El Mekki lives with his mother. She is a widow, working in a hospital to support her only son. Youssef is thoughtful, excels at school, and though he wishes he had grown up knowing his father, he is a loving son.
Soon after a flood destroys much of Youssef's neighborhood, a Muslim group calling themselves the Party sets its headquarters up in the old cinema. It is at this juncture that Youssef's life and the lives of his friends begin to diverge. Amin heads to college with Youssef, while Maati is hired as security for the Party, a position that is questioned and scorned by his friends.
Soon after entering the university, Youssef learns that his father whom he believed long dead is very much alive. Nabil Amrani is a successful businessman and he resides in Casablanca, though the life he leads might as well be worlds away from the one Youssef has experienced. The discovery of the truth about the encounters between his parents causes Youssef to question his mother who for years has raised him on lies describing a man who never existed. He wonders how many other secrets she has kept from him. His distrust leads him to seeking out his father and revealing to Nabil his identity.
Surprisingly, Nabil invests time and money in his illegitimate son. He has recently fallen out with his daughter and Youssef’s appearance seems an answer to his disappointment. Amal is studying at UCLA and Nabil has discovered that she has an American boyfriend. His displeasure with her fuels his relationship with Youssef who is the son he was unable to have with his wife. Youssef is his second chance.
Nabil’s wealth and opinions are enticing. Youssef willingly accepts his father’s offer of an apartment, as well as a job and fine clothes. He leaves his mother behind despite her warnings about the fickle nature of people such as Nabil, along with his childhood friends and dedication to school. Youssef’s entrance into the world of the wealthy is disorienting, pleasurable and brief.
As Youssef’s brief sojourn among the affluent unwinds, he is left stranded. Having had a taste of a more comfortable life it is both arduous and shameful for him to return the life he had led quite happily.
Lalami combines a number of human factors to explicate the circumstance of Youssef. Everyone In the novel plays a role in the disintegration of Youssef’s prospects including the young man himself. Greed, pride, stubbornness, naïveté and love are all essential and understandable factors in the disastrous repercussions of Youssef’s desire to participate in his father’s life.
Secret Son is a quick and engrossing read. But having finished it nothing lingered. The development of some characters, particularly Youssef’s mother, occurs too late. What is revealed is too little and distressingly detrimental to Youssef.
Casablanca never fully came alive in this novel. I vaguely knew that Youssef’s neighborhood stank and that there were no sidewalk hawkers by the apartment Nabil owned but at no moment did I cringe in disgust at the absurd luxuries or the wretched stench. Lalami is a fair storyteller and hers does say something about the atmosphere in Morocco. Unfortunately her prose does not drive the weight, danger and complexity of the circumstances home, leaving the reader with only a vague impression of what has just been read.