Laila Lalami’s new novel, “Secret Son,” brings readers into the down-and-out sections of Casablanca, Morocco, to follow the travails of Youssef El Mekki, a young man trying to rise above the abject poverty into which he was born. Youssef knows certain things about himself: He knows his father, whom he doesn’t remember, was a respected fourth-grade teacher who died while hanging lights for a religious feast, falling three floors and breaking his neck. He knows his mother is an orphan and thus the two of them must make their hardscrabble way together with no extended family to help.
He knows he is poor with few opportunities, but he’s working hard to make the best of whatever chances he has by studying hard. Though not religious, he knows that the government is never going to help him and his fellow slum-dwellers in Hay An Najat, the poverty-steeped neighborhood where he resides in a shack of a home, but that Al Hizb (“The Party” that rallies for Muslim fundamentalism) is there with food and tents after devastating floods, promising “Power to the people through God, with God, and by God.”
All the truths of Youssef’s life will be challenged as the narrative winds its way, delivering both blows and windfalls from mektub (fate), that element that can’t help but “split someone’s life in a Before and After.” The biggest revelation is that Youssef’s father is not dead, but is actually Nabil Amrani, a respected, powerful and wealthy man. Youssef wonders what his life would be like if his father were to claim him, the secret product of an encounter with a household servant. “His existence until that moment had been nothing more than a role. . . . If he could be Youssef Amrani, he would not have to play any part at all. He could be, at long last, himself.”
Feeling his pain
To the author’s credit, Youssef’s longing for his father and desire to circumvent somehow the dead-end constraints that class has placed on his life are palpable and draw readers into his experience. We follow along as Youssef pursues his father, and delight with him when his father takes him under his wing -- that is, until mektub intervenes yet again.
Lalami’s previous book, “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits,” was a mélange of poignant vignettes that gave readers visceral access to life in Morocco, especially among those who would risk their lives to immigrate illegally to Spain. By narrating the disparate linked stories from each character’s point of view, she provided insight into the woes and aspirations that motivated them. The collection benefited greatly from the ensemble approach, with each person’s tale adding depth and resonance to the others.
In this novel, her shifting point-of-view technique is less effective. With “Secret Son,” the main story focuses on Youssef and his father, and the lion’s share of the narration comes from Youssef’s perspective. But the author also includes occasional side stories, including tales from Nabil (the wealthy father), Rachida (Youssef’s mother) and Amal (Youssef’s half sister and the sole legitimate heir, who’s studying at UCLA). Two of the book’s most crucial scenes are told twice. For example, when Youssef confronts his father about his paternity, we encounter Youssef’s point of view and Nabil’s. This shifting perspective pulls readers away from the tension and intrigue surrounding Youssef.
At key moments, Youssef makes choices that seem to come out of the blue. When faced with a burgeoning protest and whether to join in, the author tells us, “His allegiance came to him in a flash.” Though real-life decisions may come in flashes, there’s usually some logic underpinning them. Without fully understanding how or why Youssef experiences dramatic changes of heart, readers are left wondering just how well we know him. This motivational vagueness becomes especially awkward toward the end of the book when Youssef makes a choice that will forever mark his life, and readers may feel as if there’s no solid reason behind it. Likewise, the novel’s trajectory poses a stumbling block. What starts out as a story of a son’s longing for his father shifts by the end into another arc without ever fully resolving the father issue.
All of which speak to the differences between linked stories and novels. Lalami’s book of stories was written with such heart and verve, and felt credible throughout. The constraints of a novel like this, in which one central story is dominant, and the expectations readers bring to it are different. That said, Lalami’s depiction of Moroccan life in “Secret Son,” illuminating the social, political, religious and poverty issues facing its citizens -- especially its still-hopeful young -- is both sensitive and startling.
Murphy has written three books of narrative nonfiction and is completing a novel, “Grace Notes.”