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.