'Secret Son: A Novel' by Laila Lalami
Reviewed By Bernadette Murphy
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."