Friday, April 30, 2010

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; Export Edition edition (4 Feb 2010)

I will be the first to admit that Laila Lalami's "Secret Son" had me yawning when I first opened it.  At chapter two I was wondering if I had made a mistake buying the book.  No, it wasn't slow-paced, quite the contrary infact, but coming to it after a novel like "Possessed" (my previous post) , the writing seemed so pedestrian and lifeless with tired metaphors (perhaps this is because French speaking Lalami writes in English?). Thankfully, by the time I was at chapter four things had started looking up and I found myself being drawn into the story.  I'm really glad I persisted because the book, although not a great literary triumph or anything, does bring its own rewards.

The title gives the plot away.  The story follows Youssef El Mekki,  a boy born out of wedlock to a servant girl and an already-married, very wealthy man (Nabil Amrani).  Being married Nabil was unable to give the woman and their son a home.  So Youssef grows up as the son of a single mother,  in Hay An Najat, a slum in Casablanca, often described as "melting pot of misery and poverty", while his "other" family, only a few miles away, live lives of the rich and famous. Had Youssef grown up in the US he may not has cursed his fate so much, but to be the bastard child of a single mother in Morocco carries with it a strong social stigma, something that is very hard to shrug off.

As a premise, the notion of there being a "secret son" is always exciting, but I think this particular novel failed to really capitalize on that - for a truly exciting and endearing story on a secret son try Tim Brannigan's "Where are you  Really From?".  However, as I continued to read I realized that the plot is little more than a hook from which to suspend a  relevant social and political commentary of  the Morocco of the new millennium and despite my reservations on the plot, narrative etc, I found myself drawn to the country, its people and their lives.

Morocco has a rigid hierarchy based on class, wealth, power and jobs, but especially class.  This division of society is very apparent in the cliques at Youssef's university.   There are the rich kids (the “Mercedes-and-Marlboro group”) as they are called; the religious kind (“headscarf -and-beard faction”); the egalitarians or ( “Marx-and-Lenin group”), and the "Berber Student Alliance and the Saharawis", students from distinct ethnic minorities within the country.

The novel also explores how Islamic fundamentalism has come to visit Morocco and how marginalized youth in the poorer areas of  the country are sitting ducks for fundamentalist recruiters.  A boy like Youssef who is not only poor but has major identity issues as well, would be just the kind of person these fundamentalists are fond of targeting.

All in all  "Secret Son" is a pitch-perfect rendering of  contemporary Moroccan life in all its chaos, energy, humor and terror.   As you read you will start to put the touristy, picture postcard images of Casablanca aside and come to the sad realization that it has problems with corruption, a mistrust of government/police, poverty, overcrowding, unequal distribution of wealth and fundamentalism, just to name a few.

Although I didn't like "Secret Son" as much as I enjoyed her previous novel "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits", I will say that this novel has a great sense of place and just for that I will give it three stars out of five.



Booklover said...

I guess its comparable to the Kite runner's painting of Afghanistan, although that would be almost a 5 star book on the whole.

Marilyn said...

LR - that is tough...waiting for a few chapters to get to the story...and great point about the title...I wonder if the Author had a different one in mind.

Sanjay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sanjay said...

Thank you Lotus for a wonderful review. Enjoyed it as always for you always capture the essence of a book so well. Have a couple of thoughts..
How does the influence of religious fundamentalism compare in this book versus that in "The Clay Bird", the Bangladeshi movie? Granted the medium is different as is the country and the milieu and society but kids are kind of the protagonists or at least a pivotal part of the stories?
Not to defend class distinctions or anything by any means, but I think they exist everywhere no?
The cliques you describe exist in North American schools and universities (the names may be different). People also for the most part tend to live and socialize with people in their same class.
For all the chances that the US and Canada offer to achieve a better life, speaking at least for the US I can say class (as in social/economic class) is very much alive. It is not as blatant as the harsher situations in countries like Morocco, but it does exist.
Sorry my comments were not completely about the book per se, just got me thinking about it.
And that Lotus is why I love to read your book reviews, in addition to being truly wonderful and bringing your own unique perspective to the book, they always get me thinking! Thank you!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Book Lover!

I honestly think "The Kiterunner" is in a class by itself. The Secret Son doesn't possess the same emotional depth, nor does it make you feel for its characters in the same way that you would feel for those in the Kiterunner. KR was a very special novel and I believe Hosseini wasn't able to capture the same magic in his second offering. Did you read "A Thousand Golden Suns"?

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Marilyn!

I do believe she needed a hook and this was a good one except it kinda fell flat, atleast in my opinion. The book has got a few raving reviews, but a lot of readers thought it was a pretty mediocre read. I'm one that falls in the latter group! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanj!

Again, thanks for making me think and rethink the novel! :)

HOw do the two compare? Well, really, they are entirely different stories. "Claybird" is set against the backdrop of the Pakistan-Bangladesh war and although the protagonist goes to a Madrasa, he does so, not because he is marginalized or because he has no other option, but because his father, a Muslim who recently rediscovered his religion, was very pious. In "Secret Son", Youssef, the lead character is swayed by the fundamentalists not because he is devout but because he is poor and sees himself as a person with no opportunity and very resentful of those that have 'made it'. I have no objection to those that belong in the former is the latter that we must be wary about.

As for the class distinctions, you are so right, you see it to varying degrees and in almost every society, but in North America, there is dignity of labour and people do not look down on you because of the job you do or the money you earn. If they do, it is covert, not overt. In Morocco, it is far more "in your face". People from different social classes never mix on any level and because of a lack of affirmative action or any other kind of assistance, the people belonging to the poorer classes find it virtually impossible to get a hand up!

Thanks again for the comment Sanj, hope you never take your thinking cap off! :)))

Happy Reader said...

Lotus, Thank you, Thank you for doing a review of 'Secret Son'. I still have mixed feelings about this book and I can't wait to see if I would like it or not. What entices me the most is the Moroccon theme, as I haven't read anything based on that.Will give it a shot!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Chitts! As usual, lovely to see you here. You know, I would describe "Secret Son" as something of a palate cleanser, something that you can read inbetween two heavy reads for despite its serious plot and themes, it's a very light read, perfect for when you're just getting over an 'intellectually-stimulating read' and you need a bit of a breather. And yes, you will learn quite a bit about Morocco...especially its class system.