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Secret Son (2009)

by Laila Lalami

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2352783,417 (3.41)61
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)

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Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
"Home and away. She had known both; found good in both; loved and hated both. She did not want to have to choose one or the other, because in every choice something is gained but something is also lost. And in any case, why was home thought of as a place? What if it were something else?" -p 266 ( )
  alyssajp | Jul 29, 2019 |
(7.5)This is the first book I have read set in Morocco, so I began googling. I enjoyed this book but found the ending a bit rushed and disappointing. It does make the reader consider the disenchanted lives of these young Islamist suicide bombers. ( )
  HelenBaker | Jan 26, 2019 |
With its portrayal of young men trying to make lives for themselves in Morocco, Secret Son has plenty of topical material about Islamic extremism and social problems. Unfortunately, though, the characters felt predictable, and the plot depended largely on coincidence.

(There's more on my blog here.) ( )
  LizoksBooks | Dec 15, 2018 |
Stilted soap opera After reading 'The Moor's Account' I came across this book as a recommendation. I definitely felt 'Moor' was a superior effort, but some of the same problems that plagued that book is apparent here. Youssef is a young man who was raised by a single mother and without having luxuries that some of his friends and classmates had. He lives in a poor neighborhood, is sad because his father died before really being able to establish any relationship with him and is set to just drift along in life.
 
Until it turns out this was a lie. He was born out of an adulterous relationship (his father was married, his mother was the help in his father's house) and his mother chose to raise him alone after being thrown out by the father's family and not wanting her son to be raised in an orphanage. This sets off a series of events when Youssef decides he wants to meet his father and establish a relationship with him...who happens to be having difficulties in his own relationship with his daughter, who was studying at UCLA.
 
Once his father's family is introduced it becomes a bit of a soap opera. Sure, it's interesting to see how the dynamics between a son who was raised in a lower economic strata than she was, but the writing isn't strong enough to support the book. As pointed out in other reviews elsewhere, the writing is stilted and the characters aren't particularly fleshed out very well. I am not sure why Youssef goes to see his father, how convenient it is that his father is so willing and open to take in this young man, how his family seems to not object as strongly as I would have thought to this intruder on their family life, etc.
 
The book flap talks about how Youssef joins a fringe extremist group, but I couldn't quite understand how or what drew him there. I thought I knew where the author was going in terms of using Youssef's poverty and loss of identity as the driver, but I felt she couldn't quite get there. There's a reference to 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' (and there are some parallels to that book that I understand), but I thought that book was much better in showing how someone could be driven to join such a group.
 
Overall fairly lackluster. I wanted to enjoy it, but it just didn't spark my emotions. I'd skip it and read her 'Moor's Account.' I have to say, I'm not sure I'll be inclined to pick up another book by this author. ( )
  HoldMyBook | Feb 11, 2018 |
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. ( )
1 vote KateVane | Aug 19, 2015 |
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Epigraph
Silence is death

And you, if you speak, you die

If you are silent you die

So speak and die.
- Tahar Djaout
The fact that I

am writing to you

in English

already falsifies what I

wanted to tell you.

- Gustavo Pérez Firmat, "Dedication"
Dedication
For my father and for my mother
First words
The rain came unexpectedly, after nearly three years of drought.
Quotations
The universe had an odd sense of fairness; it took away things one did not want to give up, and then gave things one did not ask for.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (1)

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.

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Book description
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.
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