Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Secret Son tells the story of Youseff El Mekki.

He has grown up in the slums of Casablanca with his mother, and now he is going to college, working and dreaming of a better life.

He believes that his father died in an accident, before he was born, before he had a chance to marry his mother. But he discovers that story is not true, it was a fabrication by his mother to try to protect them both. His father is very much alive.

Indeed he is a wealthy, if somewhat shady, businessman. A man who has a daughter, who is asserting her independence from her parents, and a man who has always wanted a son.

His father welcomes his son, installs him in a luxury flat, and finds him a job. And Youseff falls in with his plan, neglects his studies, his friends his mother.

The trouble is, his father tells no-one else about his new-found son. Well how could he? And, inevitably, when things go wrong Youssef has a long way to fall.

His mother stands by him, supports him, but when he falls in with bad company that may not be enough to save.

It’s a simple story, but one built on classic lines. And it drew me in from the very first page and held me, swiftly turning the pages, until the very end.

Laila Lalami writes lovely, clear and elegant prose, and her story is very well-balanced. Plenty to hold the interest without there ever being too much to keep track of, and everything that is there is needed to make the story complete.

She evokes both the poor and the wealthy streets of Casablanca simply but very, very effectively.

But most of all this is a story driven by its characters, and they worked very well. Youssef was a terribly believable young man. I admired his mother, and felt for her as her son uncovered her secret and moved away from her, not really understanding that she had done her best for him, had given him so much. I cared less for his father, but his behaviour was understandable, if not likeable.

And if I have a small criticism, it was maybe that the characters, what they said, what they did, was often a little predictable. They almost invariably did exactly what I was expecting. And, of course, people often do just that, but just one or two gentle twists could have enriched the story.

This is a book with a lot to say. About the effects of lies told and secrets kept to protect loved ones. About class divisions and the way they determine and restrict lives. And, most of all, about loss, loyalty, and love.

It says it very well, with compassion but no sentimentality or preaching.

Secret Son is accomplished, and very readable, first novel.

It’s a book that I am pleased to have discovered, thanks to its longlisting for this year’s Orange Prize. I think its certainly worthy of that place, and that  maybe it has the potential to cross over to a wider audience.

I’m not sure though that the extra star quality needed to make the shortlist is there -but it’s a first novel, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Laila Lalami’s name there before too long.

Library Loot

I really didn’t mean to bring home so many books this week, but there have been  too many great books on the shelves. Some I resisted, but there were four I just had to bring home. And now my ticket is full, so there will be no more loot until I take something back.

Here are those irresistable books:

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

“1920. The Great War has been over for two years, and it has left a very different world from the Edwardian certainties of 1914. Following the death of his wife and baby and his experiences on the Western Front, Laurence Bartram has become something of a recluse. Yet death and the aftermath of the conflict continue to cast a pall over peacetime England, and when a young woman he once knew persuades him to look into events that apparently led her brother, John Emmett, to kill himself, Laurence is forced to revisit the darkest parts of the war. As Laurence unravels the connections between Captain Emmett’s suicide, a group of war poets, a bitter regimental feud and a hidden love affair, more disquieting deaths are exposed. Even at the moment Laurence begins to live again, it dawns on him that nothing is as it seems, and that even those closest to him have their secrets ….”

Ilove the period, I loved the concept, so I ordered the book as soon as it appeared in the catalogue.

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

“Olivier is a French aristocrat, the traumatized child of survivors of the Revolution. Parrot the son of an itinerant printer who always wanted to be an artist but has ended up a servant. Born on different sides of history, their lives will be brought together by their travels in America. When Olivier sets sail for the New World, ostensibly to study its prisons but in reality to save his neck from one more revolution – Parrot is sent with him, as spy, protector, foe and foil.”

Another book that sounded just perfect. I didn’t order it because I knew that a copy was bound to appear sooner or later, and this week it did.

The Twisted Heart by Rebecca Gowers

“When Kit goes to a dance class she is hoping simply to take her mind off her studies. Soon it looks like Joe, a stranger she meets there, might do more than that. But when Kit uncovers a mystery involving the young Charles Dickens and the slaughter of a prostitute known as The Countess, she is sucked back in to the world of books, and discovers how Dickens became tangled up with this horrendous crime.”

This was the bookthat called me loudest from the longlist for the Orange Prize. I love a literary mystery and the opening chapter already has me hooked.

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

“When a young man is given the chance to rewrite his future, he doesn’t realize the price he will pay for giving up his past…Casablanca’s stinking alleys are the only home that nineteen-year-old Youssef El-Mekki has ever known. Raised by his mother in a one-room home, the film stars flickering on the local cinema’s screen offer the only glimmer of hope to his frustrated dreams of escape. Until, that is, the father he thought dead turns out to be very much alive. A high profile businessman with wealth to burn, Nabil is disenchanted with his daughter and eager to take in the boy he never knew. Soon Youssef is installed in his penthouse and sampling the gold-plated luxuries enjoyed by Casablanca’s elite. But as he leaves the slums of his childhood behind him, he comes up against a starkly un-glittering reality…”

Another book longlisted for the Orange Prize. I wasn’t sure when I first read about it, but so manypeople have been so positive about this one that I just had to pick it up.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.