Secret Son, the debut novel by Moroccan author Laila Lalami, is a cautionary tale: the message is not be careful what you hope for, but rather, beware of hope itself. An exciting new talent, Lalami has been busy lately. Her short story collection, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was published in 2005 to critical acclaim, and her essays are featured in two other books being published this spring, including Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing. Meanwhile, Secret Son succeeds in the best of conventional ways. With its graceful prose, its movie-worthy plot, and its convincing, complex characters, this novel offers all of the traditional pleasures of a well-told story.
Good writers tell the same age-old tales, but with a twist. Lalami combines several reliable narrative tropes in her novel, including: poor single mother raises boy in the slums; boy discovers father is still alive (and rich!); and, of course, boy hopes for a better life. To this already potent blend, Lalami adds the more modern and irresistible storyline of a boy getting mixed up with Islamic fundamentalists. This story has all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster—just as movie-loving Youssef himself would have it.
“What could one man do against all the injustices of the world?” Youssef asks himself. It is one thing to explain the actions of terrorists—such as Moroccan national Jamal Zougam, responsible for the 2004 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people—as motivated by religious zeal or socioeconomic lack; it is another thing to actually spend time with such characters in a novel, grappling with their sense of alienation and injustice, and yes, their hope for something better. When asked in an interview how to build a bridge to greater tolerance between the Muslim world and America, Lalami said, “Get to know your Muslim neighbor ... Take a class or listen to Muslim music. Visit an art exhibit. Read books by Muslim authors.”
Youssef’s struggle stems from what he perceives, simply, as the systemic “disregard for human dignity.” His own government fails to help his poor neighborhood, Hay An Najat, when it is pounded by a terrible flood. His father, representing the wealthy business class of Morocco, casts Youssef aside after a brief attempt at a real relationship. Meanwhile, Lalami illustrates how the images of atrocities from other parts of the world (e.g., Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq) affect young Youssef’s psyche. On TV, he sees photographs from Abu Ghraib: “[The prisoners’] heads were covered with black sandbags or with pink, frilly women’s underwear ... Men were piled like stones in pyramids of varying heights or dragged on a leash like animals.”
Meanwhile, Youssef’s half-sister Amal, studying abroad at U.C.L.A., is subjected to subtler, more insidious forms of disregard.
After all, her race had been the biggest signifier about her in America. ‘Are their many Arabic women who go on to study in America?’ one of her TAs had asked. Amal did not know whether it would be too impolite to point out that Arabic was a language, not a people. ‘But you don’t look Arab,’ a middle-aged school registrar has said upon finding out that Amal was from Morocco—and she said it in a tone that suggested it was a compliment.
Indeed, Lalami’s novel doggedly begs the question: What can one man or woman do against all the injustice of the world?
A good novel allows the reader to see directly into the mind of another. Lalami plays satisfying tricks with close third-person point-of-view that accentuate this aspect of the reading experience. When Youssef first meets his father, Lalami relates the encounter from close to the father’s perspective; we read Nabil’s thoughts and feel his reactions. Pages later, the same scene is told from Youssef’s point of view. There are even subtle shifts in the external dialogue exchanged between the two characters, implying how our points of view—or our memories—sharply affect how we interpret the world. This clever technical innovation, employed several times throughout the novel, effectively reveals how the characters seek to achieve their own agendas, as well as how each character instinctively judges the others.
“‘Just imagine,’ Youssef would say to Amin ... ‘Everything will be better,’ Amin concurred.” In Secret Son, a careful analysis of the pitfalls of hope, Lalami surreptitiously constructs what grows into a wonderfully complex story. What first appears as a traditional narrative unfolds with at once surprising and inevitable twists. Her sure-handed skills as a storyteller and her astute sense of characterization lend the novel its solidity and verisimilitude. This is treacherous territory; there are political complexities and shifting sympathies at every turn. But Lalami handles her subject with an elegance and aplomb that make you forget that what you are reading is a fiction. The real world and its injustices are another dream altogether.
ContributorPaul Charles Griffin