Secret son : a novel

by Laila Lalami

Paper Book, 2009





Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009.


Raised by his mother in a one-room house in the slums of Casablanca, Youssef El Mekki has always had big dreams of living another life in another world. Suddenly his dreams are within reach when he discovers that his father--whom he'd been led to believe was dead--is very much alive. A wealthy businessman, he seems eager to give his son a new start. Youssef leaves his mother behind to live a life of luxury, until a reversal of fortune sends him back to the streets and his childhood friends. Trapped once again by his class and painfully aware of the limitations of his prospects, he becomes easy prey for a fringe Islamic group. In the spirit of The Inheritance of Loss and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Laila Lalami's debut novel looks at the struggle for identity, the need for love and family, and the desperation that grips ordinary lives in a world divided by class, politics, and religion.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Alirambles
In Secret Son, Laila Lalami takes readers on a trip to Morocco, complete with sights, sounds, and smells. Nineteen-year old Youssef El Mekki enrolls in college in an attempt to rise above life in the slum he was raised in, when he learns that there may be another way out. His father, who he'd been told was dead, is actually a very successful businessman, who just might be interested in building a relationship with his illegitimate son he's never known.

Apart from the Moroccan setting--which I loved--this book didn't stand out for me one way or the other. I think someone with a head for politics would have a better appreciation for the underlying tension between different factions, which I have to admit went in one eye and out the other some of the time. And, apparently I was never fully on board with Youssef, because at times his actions and reactions had me stymied, especially near the end.
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LibraryThing member KateVane
Youssef is bright but poor. He lives in a one-room shack in Casablanca with his mother. She is an outsider in the slum, poor but educated and working as a nurse. She has encouraged Youssef to study and now he is at university. He dreams of belonging and of his dead father.

Except through a series of events he learns that his father is not dead. Soon he meets him and becomes part of his affluent world. He spends time in his father’s smart apartment and wears good clothes. But he has walked away from his mother and his friends and he still he doesn’t feel as if his father has fully accepted him.

I’m ambivalent about this book. The thing that makes it interesting is the insights it gives into the different aspects of Moroccan society. At university Youssef is aware of them all – the Mercedes-and-Marlboros crowd with their flawless French, the religious crowd, the political activists. He meets corrupt business people and liberal journalists. We see graduates who have no life chances despite their education, because they do not have the right connections.

But this might also be its weakness. The novel perhaps ticks off a little too conscientiously all the different groups and issues that need to be covered. And the ending, which seeks to tie the strands together, felt unconvincing to me.

The book is at its strongest when it lets the characters speak louder than the issues. The writing vividly evokes the sights, sounds and smells of Youssef’s different worlds – the cool, perfumed lives of the rich and the oppressive intimacy of the poor.

Youssef’s relationship with his mother is driven by his confusion about women and sexuality. This in turn reflects the contradictions of a society which dazzles him with wealth and opportunity – but offers no legitimate means to achieve them.
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LibraryThing member Lisa2013
recommended by: Monica

This book has such an enjoyable writing style; it’s very accessible and the book is a really quick read, and a pleasant read, despite its tragic subject matter. This book had a good mix of the personal and political, heavy on the personal, which I liked.

I got a great feel for various parts of Morocco and what it feels like to be an immigrant. I admired how while parts of this story are about big issues, the significance of the psychological aspects of family, including what’s happened in past generations, and of friends and community, and most of all the importantce of each person’s psychological makeup was shown clearly.

It was a little weird at first but I ended up appreciating the separate sections to show the different points of view of the various characters. It was a bit jarring, but it was effective.

This book is all about betrayal, both with malice and with supposed love and protection in mind. It’s also about the feeling of not belonging. It’s about poverty and injustice and other ills that can lead to poor conclusions.

I understand depression despair, rage, and I could empathize greatly with most of the main characters, the privileged and the poverty stricken. But, I was still not so sold on some of the events, not really. I was a bit stunned by the ending, even though I had a good idea of what was coming. I felt some relief that in the end the characters did seem realistic and true to how they’d been crafted.

My two main complaints about this book are what I consider a weak ending and the lack of humor. Yes, there are characters in good humor and even characters that experience amusement, but I was never amused. Perhaps it’s because I knew the gist of the plot before I read the book, but I felt that the book kept to a very narrow range of tone.

I was very engaged when I was reading, at least up until toward the very end, but the way the story ended left me unsatisfied; I was gratified by how some of the subplots played out, but ultimately I was disappointed; I think I would have been much more pleased by so many different endings, sad or happy or any mix of the two. This is wonderful storytelling but the story ended up letting me down.
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LibraryThing member enoch_elijah
Books about young men finding themselves and their place in the world are always intriguing to me, and "Secret Son" would have been among my favorite books were it not for one major issue I have with the book.

Ironically enough, I want to first say that for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed this story of Youseff El-Mekki, the 19 year old Moroccan boy whose life we follow for 2 years. His longing to know more about himself and his family, his likeability as a character, and his human frailty made me bond with him and I was cheering for him to succeed throughout the book! Truly Ms. Lalami has written a powerful story here, evoking the harshness of growing up poor in a society where the rich rule with an iron fist. A story of tension between tradition, change, religion and avoiding the extremists around us all. In Youseff I discovered a young man longing for a better life, divided between love and loyalty to his mother and a desire for the material goods of this world. What a story!

Ultimately, however, I can only recommend this book half-heartedly. For most people I fear this will not be an issue, but for myself I was deeply troubled by the inclusion of what I felt was an unnecessary vivid description of sex. It always bothers me when movies and books include such scenes which lend nothing to the actual story. Hopefully Ms. Lalami will avoid such scenes in future novels so that I can continue to enjoy her writings...otherwise I fear she will lose the readership of Christians who love a good story but don't want to read scenes such as the one I mentioned above.
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LibraryThing member TomMcGreevy
Lalami's book is in many ways an exposition upon Shakespeare's famous "All the world's a stage" monologue from William Shakespeare's As You Like It
"All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."
Her characters play out their individual roles with no understanding of their playwright's overall plot - leading as often to tragedy, but tragedy by circumstance rather than by intent. A wonderful read - I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member TrishNYC
Youssef El Mekki is a son of the slums where he grows up with his widowed mother and hopes for a better future. When we first meet him, he is about to graduate high school and hopefully head for university. Both he and his mother look to his higher education as a bridge to a better life and possibly out of the ghetto. But by chance, Youssef discovers that his father who he was brought up to believe died in a tragic accident is in fact alive and quite a rich and influential member of Moroccan society. He is whisked into a world of power, privilege and money and its truly like a whirlwind romance for a boy who finds his fairly tale of leaving the ghetto becoming a reality.

As Yossef gets acquainted with his father, he begins to change both physically and mentally. He begins to scorn his mother who he believes is trying to deny him access to greatness and embraces the limited admittance he is granted into his father's life. He eventually abandons his university studies, believing that his father will assure his future and along with that go his old friends from the neighborhood. But as his mother warned,all is not as it may seem and Youssef is again relegated to the ghetto. The resulting sadness and feelings of rejection that follow set into motion a tragic set of events that will taint and scar almost everyone involved.

The author's quiet comments on Morocco and the country that it is becoming are evident. There is a sense of nostalgia that is palpable all through the book, be it a return to the ghetto for a former resident or the return of a favored daughter to the Morocco she used to know. The sights, smells and sound of Morocco are a constant and help draw in the reader. There are so many themes apparent in this book, from the lies that we tell the ones we love to protect them and ourselves from certain harsh realities, to the lies we tell to cover our past mistakes. There is the theme of the presence of social classes and its pervading evidence in all facets of Moroccan life. The resulting effect of this being young men who lose hope as they find that because they did not win the birth lottery that allowed them to be born rich, they will remain low and subject to the will of the rich and powerful. And most dangerously, there is the theme of what happens when hope is lost and messengers of death promise an outlet. A very interesting book that I enjoyed reading.
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LibraryThing member Griff
Such a contrast. I had just finished a series of short stories (Unaccustomed Earth) by Jhumpa Lahiri and marvelled at her talent for quickly and successfully providing depth to characters. Her ability to do so allows the characters to feel real, believable: it emotionally draws the reader to the story. I have now just finished reading Laila Lalami's Secret Son and it pales in comparison. Though trying hard to give me reasons to care about the characters, I did not - in one direction or another. Her descriptions of the reaction of characters to various circumstances almost told me too much. It felt as if I couldn't be trusted to experience the book - couldn't experience the pain, loss, joy or surprise that was described. I was told about it - and told how the characters were impacted. There was no room to allow me to muddle through, to make connections, to wonder or speculate. Rather, it was laid out for me clearly, which made for a reasonable story, but one with little emotional impact or investment. Perhaps this perception was facilitated by the rapidity of how lives seemed changed and decisions were made. So many major life issues decided within minutes left me with a hurried sensation. Whereas Lahiri's writing provides a richness of texture, Lalami's story seemed sterile and rushed. I did not appreciate depth or nuance.

I was excited when I received this book as part of the Early Reviewers program. In the end, however, I was underwhelmed. It was a reasonable story that provided a quick read, but it is not a book that proved memorable in any fashion.
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LibraryThing member mooodi
Great story, great setting and beautiful scenic transitions and I would probably say much of what other people who reviewed this book have said regarding the plot.

However, it should be noted that one of the most distinctive elements that make this book so appealing to a large number of people is that it is set amidst a culture they are not familiar with, and so despite that it might integrate a large number of social issues in Morocco, it does not fair well as a standalone narrative.

I appreciate her attempt to bring this humanizing story to the thoughts of the readers, but in the end, it seems that after everything it still comes out as an open ended story about futility. This caught me off guard as I have read a number of her articles and she seems a lot more concise and brave in stating her opinion, her thoughts about progress and her views on what should have happened.
Naturally, I do not expect her stories to be a direct reflection of her journalistic pursuits, but it seems that in her book "Secret Son" she deliberately tread softly, fearing that the reader might put the book down if they didn't agree with what she had to say.

I look forward to reading more or Laila's books where her more affirmative writing style is seen, and if published in English material that takes into account the diversity of the international English speaking immigrant populace.
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LibraryThing member LoreleiMuriel
This novel puts a face on the contemporary conflicts young men are forced to address and sometimes pushed into in regions of the world such as Morocco. Any stereotypes of such men and their conditions are thoroughly blown in this book. Just when the reader thinks the motivation of a character is understood, another perspective is revealed. Youssef El-Mekki is the 19 year old male protagonist that exposes the reader to the slums of Casablanca, Morocco. And, the luxurious living conditions of the wealthy, and all that falls in between.

Youssef lives with his mother who ekes out an existence as a single working mother. She attempts to keep her son interested in obtaining an education and in remaining at home. This proves difficult when a fringe fundamentalist Islamic group sets up in the neighborhood and her past family relations emerge to offer Youssef financial options. These social and emotional intrusions complicate Youssef's future. He is forced to define his values, to sort out his stance as an individual in the face of causes, symbolism and money - in politics, religion and class.

The tug of war between all these elements and just wanting to be a young man wishing for acceptance and opportunity in the world swirls about Youssef. The author, Laila Lalami, was born and raised in Morocco. So this swath of cultural exposure has credibility. I found the novel memorable. Whenever I hear of conflicts and terrorism in the daily news, I relate Youssef's condition to those participating. His character humanizes the young people that are pushed and pulled into symbolic acts out of despair and frustration.
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LibraryThing member MsGemini
Secret Son was about a young man searching for his identity in the world. The story is a sad one but I found it hard to find an emotional connection with Youssef. The setting was well described and I enjoyed reading about Morocco. Just an okay story.
LibraryThing member DevourerOfBooks
Youssef El Mekki is a young man growing up in an impoverished slum of Casablanca, Morocco with his mother. He has always been told that his father was a teacher who worked odd jobs for extra money and was killed in a tragic accident. Then, one day, he discovers that his father is truly a (living) wealthy business man who fooled around on his wife with Youssef’s mother. Due to the circumstances surrounding Youssef’s discovery and his attempts to reconnect with his father, Youssef begins to spend more and more time at the community center of a somewhat radical Islamic group known as The Party.

I thought that “The Secret Son” was a fantastic look at the desperate circumstances that end up radicalizing many young men around the world. I really enjoyed the way the story unfolded, particularly through the end of the book. The beginning was a bit of a slow start for me, but once Youssef began to learn the truth about his father it really picked up. I really enjoyed this look into modern life in Morocco.
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LibraryThing member kakadoo202
interesting view from the poor side of a young man in Marocco. The Islam party has no problem to recruit the poor and futureless. Reminds me a lot of how the Nazi recruited their members and other Fashists parties. low educated men are an easy target. Mothers still have nothing to say but have to make sure they are keeping face and don't embarrass the men. I liked this book, some characters could have been deeper while others were not really necessary. it feels more liek a short story than a book. easy to read. easy to relate to characters.… (more)
LibraryThing member kdemott
I enjoy a book that takes you to a place that, chances are, you'll never visit and if you do, you'll be a tourist and never get a real feel for the place anyway. Youssef lives in the slums of Casablanca, an intelligent college student who finds it next to impossible to move above his low station. He lives under the belief that his father died early in Youssef's childhood. He comes to find out that his mother lied about the scandalous circumstances under which he was born and his father is actually a wealthy businessman. Youssef finds his father and, for a time, lives the life of a rich son, just to be cast out again. Forces combine to destroy the life of Youssef, something that seems inevitable after all.… (more)
LibraryThing member nabeelar
Laila Lalami was the first female Muslim author we read for our Ill Fated Muslim Book Club.

"Secret Son" chronicles a young Moroccan man's rise and fall within the patriarcal class society of modern Morocco.

We chose this book for out book club because we had not read any works by women authors. Also, my husband reasoned that if we read a work of fiction, we would have to think about the book for ourselves. When Muslims are asked to read non-fiction about Islam, they tend not to read the book and simply repeat things they have heard from their imam, shaykh, parents, etc. We thought a fiction book would force people to think for themselves.

The biggest surprise from this book was that men and women read it differently. The men dismissed it, saying they had already read this kind of story before. The women noticed that in "Secret Son", despite the fact that this is a patriarcal society, it is always the FEMALE characters that get what they want. The women are pulling the strings and giving men the illusion that the menfolk are in charge. In reality, the women call the shots.

We were beginning to understand that for Muslims, single gender book clubs work very well: it gives mom her Ladies' Night Out, or dad his Guys' Night Out. Combining genders leads to not as much social fun (we witnessed a few marital disputes e.g. "Don't you tell me what I think!"), but men and women do read texts differently. These differences are lost when you have single gender book clubs.

Despite the insight, no one was reading the books. My husband wanted to disband the club. I told him to wait until Ramadan, everything slows down and drops off the face of the earth then, but he wouldn't listen. He sent out this big email saying how if people couldn't commit to reading the book and attending the discussion, then the club would stop. Then a whole bunch of people started writing him saying, "No, don't stop the club!". Excuses were tendered, a number of women claimed to be reading the books but were unable to attend the meetings, and a "this is good for the community" guilt trip. A few claimed they enjoyed reading the books and would get the details of the discussion/debates in later one-on-one 'wrap-up' coffee talks.

Based on this "no, no, keep it going" response, my husband decided to choose another fiction book written by a woman.
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LibraryThing member astridnr
I usually review books as soon as I have finished them. I was so out of sorts after this one, that I couldn't write a thing. After a number of weeks, I am going to give it a shot. This was a book that seduced me into its exotic setting and characters. Down on their luck, the characters were people I was rooting for as the action unfolded. A mother and son living together in a slums of Casablanca struggle with their past. The young man, the product of his mother's liaison with a rich and influential married man, was never told the truth about his origins and discovers them by chance. It is a heartwrenching story that explores family relationships, loyalties, religious fanaticism, desperation, futility, and ultimately, loss. As a mother myself, I found it a difficult read. Not a fan of ill-fated plot lines and tragic endings.… (more)
LibraryThing member DubaiReader
Review for the unabridged Audible version.

It is very hard for me to review this book as I struggled to understand the narrator, who had such a strong accent and put the sentance emphasis in the wrong place so frequently, that I felt I probably missed a lot of the detail. Having said that, the story itself has stayed with me and I'm rating it as a 4 star book in spite of the narrator. Perhaps it would have done better if I'd read it in hard copy, I wish I had.

I really felt for Youssef el-Mekki, a likeable lad, caught in poverty in the slums of Cassablanca (Morocco). With the best of intentions, his mother had hidden the identity of his father from him and led him to believe that he had died in an accident, helping a neighbour. When, at the age of nineteen, he forces the information from her, he discovers that he is not the person he'd always imagined, but has connections to the wealthy part of the city. He decides to meet his father, with both exciting and disastrous consequences.
I loved the portrayal of Youssef's mother, a hard working, long suffering woman, who loved Youssef, even when he abandoned her for a better life. Youssef's friends were also highly believable, and a typical mixture of good and bad.

I don't know how I'd expected the book to end but I did find the given ending a bit abrupt, a bit off key. A bit of a shock, in fact.

I shall certainly read Ms Lalami's book of short stories, but although it is available on Audible (with the same narrator), this time I shall read it in the printed version.
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LibraryThing member Shiv9597
The Secret Son by Laila Lalami is a fantastic book located in the country of Morocco.Youssef El Mekki is a young man growing up in an impoverished slum of Casablanca, Morocco with his mother. Even though he may not have a father which eventually shows up in the story, he is a great young man going through changes in his life which he may have to deal with.
Even though I haven't finished the book so far I think it is truly amazing. Youssef El Mekki was shy, bookish, gullible, by turns sensitive to others’ feelings and oblivious to them. Early on in the novel, he finds out that his long deceased father, whom he believed was a poor, respected schoolteacher, is in fact Nabil Amrani, a wealthy businessman living in the same sprawling city of Casablanca. Youssef sets out to find Nabil and, much to his surprise, is welcomed into his father’s liberal, sophisticated, yet highly corrupt world. All though the main story was set against a background of Islamic fundamentalism and corrupt liberalism, I thought at first that those thematic concerns would be the main driving force in the book. But it was unlikely.
If you're looking for a new book you should start reading this book. :)
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LibraryThing member dreamqueen
This book is a dramatic introduction to the slums of Casablanca where Youssef is trying to find his place. I very much enjoyed the emotional journey he took and the sights and sounds the author exposed the reader to. The authors style is a hauntingly beautiful one. I will definitely read her books in the future. Thank you for the advance copy!… (more)
LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
The story of Youseff El Mekki begins in Hay An Najat, a poor neighborhood in Casablanca, Morocco, where he lives with his mother in a house with no windows, a rusting front door, and a corrugated tin roof held down by rocks. Following Youseff, we see his attempts to improve his station in life by following his dreams and fantasies. This sad story probably reflects life as it is lived by young men who inhabit poorer areas of Morocco, especially those who do not have relatives with a known “name” who might possibly improve their lives.

The characters are real, especially Youseff himself. I think most young people, like Youseff, are idealistic and see themselves in better stations in life as they enter adulthood. What I liked less about this particular story, though, was the action itself which seemed to hopscotch at times from scene to scene without much transition. I found that a bit disconcerting. I would have liked this story to have been more deeply developed. Nevertheless, an interesting technique I did like was that, in two different places within the book, we see the same conversation replayed from two different characters' point of view.

Local color is abundant and very much enriches this novel. There are many phrases tossed with abandon into the story, both in French and Arabic as well as the use of many colloquial terms with which I was not familiar. A glossary at the back of the book would have been be a truly appreciated and helpful addition.

In total, though, I did enjoy reading this novel because it gave me a feel for how one young person from Morocco fit into his culture. It also allowed me to view the similarities and differences with other Islamic cultures with which I’m familiar. Giving me insight into modern Morocco (e.g. cyber-cafes, cell phones, etc.) contrasted with traditional Morocco (e.g. a “name” is important, you can “pay off” a police officer, etc.) was a highlight of this book and the reason that I’d look for more of this author’s work in the future.
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