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Secret Son Hardcover – April 21, 2009
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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
"An absorbing tale."—Kirkus Reviews
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
The setting is in Lalami's native Morocco, in the largest city, Casablanca. Many Moroccan words in Darjia Arabic are used and they are difficult to look up--sometimes the translation of the word is in French. Though the words give great local flavor to the wonderful prose, they are stumbling blocks as they are sometimes not easy to understand what is meant. I wish the author had not used some of them, or had woven in more of their meaning. This is a small criticism--I loved this book so much, I'm re-reading it and want to read more of this author's writing. Five stars, and I couldn't put it down for a second. Really good.
"All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."
Her characters play out their individual roles with no understanding of the playwright's overall plot - leading as often to tragedy, but tragedy by circumstance rather than by intent. A wonderful read - I highly recommend it.
However, I was reading the book with my friend, and we both hoped the story had a better ending. We thought it was very deceiving that it ended in such a manner.
It was a very interesting book to read, though!
As poignant and uncomfortable as Youssef El Mekki's story in "Secret Son" is, it is an engaging one, beautifully told by Moroccan writer Laila Lalami. Lalami knows her country and its modern society well and has created wonderful characters in Youssef, his mother, Rachida, Youssef's friends Amin and Maati, and the Amrani family members.
A wonderful cautionary tale that makes a great read. Highly recommended.