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Secret Son Hardcover – April 21, 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Moroccan-born Lalami offers a novel set in her native land. The protagonist is a young man of very meager circumstances living with his widowed mother in Casablanca while he attends college as an English major. The city’s ancient streets teem with political unrest, but Youssef seems disconnected. His thoughts are haunted by the loss of his father in a freak accident when Youssef was an infant. Shocked by his doting mother’s precipitous confession that he is not the son of her late husband, Youssef determines to find his real father, who turns out to be a successful local businessman. The man sets up Youssef in a chic apartment, quite a contrast to the slum Youssef has called home. But such a sudden turn of fortune cannot endure a time of turmoil. A story brimming with insight into the complexities of life in contemporary Morocco. --Mark Knoblauch


A "powerful debut novel. . . .The culture and politics of contemporary Morocco are well displayed in this beautifully written tale, with the talented Lalami deftly portraying Youssef’s struggles for identity, work, and family. A brilliant story of alienation and desperation that easily transports readers to hot, dusty Casablanca; highly recommended."—Library Journal, starred review

(Library Journal)

"An absorbing tale."—Kirkus Reviews

(The Oregonian)

"Gives us an insider’s view of the underlying turmoil of Morocco . . . A nuanced depiction of the roots of terrorism, written by someone who intimately knows one of the stratified societies where it grows." —The New York Times Book Review

"Lalami's depiction of Moroccan life in Secret Son, illuminating the social, political, religious and poverty issues facing its citizen—especially its still-hopeful young—is both sensitive and startling." —Los Angeles Times

"Lalami does an impressive job of concentrating on one young man's candide-like experiences among all sectors of a complicated society . . . She raises question after question—about privilege vs. poverty, Western commercialism vs. traditional ways, secularism vs. religion—without ever seeming to be doing more than telling a compelling story." —The Oregonian

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 291 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; 1 edition (April 21, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565124944
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565124943
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #932,072 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Joanna Daneman #1 HALL OF FAMETOP 10 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 30, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a tale that, in other variations, could happen in any inner city slum. This is the story of Youssef, who lives in a slum in Casablanca with his "widowed" mother. The story is told against a background of hopelessness in a country where a good education is free--but amounts to nothing when there are no jobs. And all around are the deadly traps of crime and becoming radicalized as a pawn of political factions including radical Muslims, socialist-communists and the government snitches.

Youssef is the son of a hospital worker. She is an orphan and a widow, or...is she? The neighbors shun her--even in a slum, there are social distinctions. She raises her son the best she can but he eventually ferrets out her secret, actually secrets. This book has layers of them and they are slow to be unveiled, which is one of the pleasures of this novel. The surprises are laid out along the path Youssef takes to his eventual fate at the end of the novel and each one is a shock, and yet, sometimes, it's not a shock but an "of course."

The interesting part of this book is how the actions of the two mothers have such unintended consequences. All along, Youssef's mother Rachida struggles to keep him safe, safe from knowledge of his past, safe from his rich connections,and perhaps selfishly, safe from changing his fate as the son of a poor mother in a slum and leaving her behind. The outcome is astonishingly bad. Every good intention based on a lie pushes Youssef down a spiral of desperation. Even though Youssef isn't strictly speaking "radicalized" as we'd know it in the press, this novel gives you a good idea of how it can take place with appalling ease, for young people who have poor prospects ahead of them, but a good mind and good upbringing.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In this superb short novel, Laila Lalami deftly limns the rise and fall of Youssef El Mekki, unacknowledged bastard son of prominent businessman, disillusioned activist, and bon vivant Nabil El Amrani. Seemingly sprung from the trap of the Casablanca slums when he learns that his father, far from being dead, is in fact a Moroccan tycoon, Youssef is soon caught in a complex web of familial and political intrigue. A mark of this novel's quality is its ability to portray what for many Americans is the mildly exotic culture of Morocco while also convincingly revealing the ways in which both Americans and Moroccans are enmeshed in their own cultural contexts (a point illustrated in another fashion by Malcolm Gladwell's recent Outliers). While each character acts as though autonomously, behind the apparently simple interactions among the characters lies a complex web of human relationships, cultural relationships, and sometimes sinister motivations, which Lalami gradually unveils. Lalami's lean style, unsparing eye, and tight construction mean not a word is wasted in this elegant depiction of the book's all too human characters and its damning indictment of the cruel forces that manipulate them.
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Format: Hardcover
Youssef and his mother Rachida live in a one-room house with no windows and a tin roof held in place by stones in a Casablanca slum. When it rains, the roof leaks. When it's not raining, they live in the yard beneath a sky as spacious as Youssef's dreams.

When it rains, they carry their life back inside the whitewashed house: the divan, the food bowls, the clean clothes off the line, and the black and white photograph of his father that hangs in the yard above the divan. The young man who forever smiles out of that old photograph was in his 20s, not so many rears older than Youssef is now as he prepares to enter college in Casablanca.

He thinks often about the man in the picture who died in an accident, his mother told him, when Youssef was two; he was a well-respected man, a dedicated school teacher and, as Youssef learns a few pages into Laila Lalami's powerful debut novel, an invention.

As Rachida's secrets unravel, the following facts emerge: Youssef is the product of his mother's affair with a married man, a man who is not only very much alive, but a wealthy and influential Casablanca businessman. While his doting mother is content to play the role of the grieving widow, as Youssef sees it, and to eke out a living in a slum, he is now free to escape from all that's been denied him into a life of achievable dreams.

Against his mother's wishes, he leaves the windowless house to discover his true identity. While she prays her son will make something of himself by staying in college, he has set his sights on greater things. He leaves Rachida's whitewashed house with food for thought: when the rains came, a volatile Islamic fundamentalist group called "The Party" brought aid to the flooded slum while the state handed out promises it would not keep.
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Format: Hardcover
The story of Youseff El Mekki begins in Hay An Najat, a poor neighborhood in Casablanca, Morocco, where he lives with his mother in a house with no windows, a rusting front door, and a corrugated tin roof held down by rocks. Following Youseff, we see his attempts to improve his station in life by following his dreams and fantasies. This sad story probably reflects life as it is lived by young men who inhabit poorer areas of Morocco, especially those who do not have relatives with a known "name" who might possibly improve their lives.

The characters are real, especially Youseff himself. I think most young people, like Youseff, are idealistic and see themselves in better stations in life as they enter adulthood. What I liked less about this particular story, though, was the action itself which seemed to hopscotch at times from scene to scene without much transition. I found that a bit disconcerting. I would have liked this story to have been more deeply developed. Nevertheless, an interesting technique I did like was that, in two different places within the book, we see the same conversation replayed from two different characters' point of view.

Local color is abundant and very much enriches this novel. There are many phrases tossed with abandon into the story, both in French and Arabic as well as the use of many colloquial terms with which I was not familiar. A glossary at the back of the book would have been be a truly appreciated and helpful addition.

In total, though, I did enjoy reading this novel because it gave me a feel for how one young person from Morocco fit into his culture. It also allowed me to view the similarities and differences with other Islamic cultures with which I'm familiar. Giving me insight into modern Morocco (e.g.
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