The story of the illegitimate son may seem a little old-fashioned in the West, but in Morocco it is both believable and ordinary. Secret Son is the debut of novelist Laila Lalami (1970). She was born and raised in Morocco and lives in the United States. Lalami writes literary criticism and political essays for many newspapers, including The New York Times.
Secret Son is about Youssef, who lives with his mother in a one-room house in the slums of Casablanca. Although he is studying English at the university, there is no bright future ahead for him, because he was born in the wrong class and doesn’t have the right connections. The only escape for Youssef and his friends is the old cinema, where they watch movies and where Youssef dreams of a life as an actor.
Then, his father (whom he believed to be dead) shows up. He turns out to be an extremely rich and powerful businessman. The man has a daughter with whom he is in discord at the moment, because of her way of life in America, so he is happy to find out that he has a son. Despite his mother's warnings, Youssef changes his old life for a new one in the glamorous upper class. He works for his father and neglects his studies. He also wants to get to know his half-sister, who is studying in the United States. Then, without any reason that Youssef understands, he is fired and thrown back to his old life, with no chance of return. He gets depressed and becomes an easy prey for a fundamentalist group.
This book follows different lines. It is about Moroccan culture, the importance of family and identity, and the fact that one cannot escape from the class in which one is born. It is also about American culture, where one can become anything if one has the right ambitions, but where people are decadent.
Lalami knows what she is talking about and this makes her book so good: she is able to take you deep into Moroccan culture. She makes you understand how important family, neighbours and class are in Morocco. Despite its faults, she doesn’t judge nor point a finger.
Very well portrayed and moving is Youssef’s struggle for identity, work and family. Without any trouble, you find yourself in dusty Casablanca, in Youssef’s life, hoping that things will turn out good for him, in spite of all the difficulties, manipulations and corruption.