Sunday, December 19, 2010

Not Enough Mystery in Secret Son

Laila Lalami’s Secret Son was a frustrating book for me to read: I’m glad it addresses the big, messy topic of youth, economic issues, and Islamic fundamentalism in Morocco, but I was disappointed that the book felt so neat. Lalami’s basic plot concerns Youssef, a student who grew up in a slum with his single mother. Youssef finds out from a magazine that his father, whom his mother told him died, is alive. And a successful businessman. Youssef goes to his father’s office and they develop a relationship; the father gives Youssef a job and an apartment. Meanwhile, an Islamic organization establishes a presence in Youssef’s old neighborhood.

I love writerly precision but Secret Son felt too controlled, almost surgical, for my taste. Lalami writes very well – it’s difficult to believe she grew up speaking Moroccan Arabic and French rather than English – and I’m glad she included Moroccan Arabic words, foods, and other specifics in Secret Son to give her timeless themes a concrete setting. But I felt like she was holding back, writing too tight a book and avoiding risks. The pages turned but I kept yearning for a bigger emotional and intellectual challenge: the characters felt predictably trapped in their situations and social classes, and coincidences, foreseeable coincidences, played a huge role in the book.

I was especially disappointed at Youssef’s fate, and his friends’ parts in it, at the end of the book: the ending seemed to fit current events or a plot outline more than the fictional characters named Youssef, Amin, and Maati. A positive: I liked Lalami’s emphasis on Youssef’s idea that people are actors.

I should emphasize that I found Secret Son disappointing rather than, say, “bad” or “boring” or unlikable. It’s solidly constructed and readable, and it’s a sincere look at contemporary problems in Northern Africa. Boston Bibliophile provides a more positive take on Secret Son here; Marie interviewed Laila Lalami here.

Holiday Gift Ideas: If you’re still looking for a happy holiday gift book, I have two suggestions from this year’s reading. For a book written in English: Ron Currie, Jr.’s, Everything Matters! (here). For a book translated into English, Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass (here). Of course even my “happy” books have dark sides but I thought both of these novels were fun and memorable.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Secret Son at Book Expo America from Algonquin Books. Thank you!

Up Next: I’m not sure. Perhaps, or maybe probably, Milorad Pavic’s Landscape Painted with Tea.

Photo of Casablanca from mco4684, via

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