Youssef and his mother Rachida live in a one-room house with no windows and a tin roof held in place by stones in a Casablanca slum. When it rains, the roof leaks. When it’s not raining, they live in the yard beneath a sky as spacious as Youssef’s dreams.
When it rains, they carry their life back inside the whitewashed house: the divan, the food bowls, the clean clothes off the line, and the black and white photograph of his father that hangs in the yard above the divan. The young man who forever smiles out of that old photograph was in his 20s, not so many rears older than Youssef is now as he prepares to enter college in Casablanca.
He thinks often about the man in the picture who died in an accident, his mother told him, when Youssef was two; he was a well-respected man, a dedicated school teacher and, as Youssef learns a few pages into Laila Lalami’s powerful debut novel, an invention.
As Rachida’s secrets unravel, the following facts emerge: Youssef is the product of his mother’s affair with a married man, a man who is not only very much alive, but a wealthy and influential Casablanca businessman. While his doting mother is content to play the role of the grieving widow, as Youssef sees it, and to eke out a living in a slum, he is now free to escape from all that’s been denied him into a life of achievable dreams.
Against his mother’s wishes, he leaves the windowless house to discover his true identity. While she prays her son will make something of himself by staying in college, he has set his sights on greater things. He leaves Rachida’s whitewashed house with food for thought. When the rains came, a volatile Islamic fundamentalist group called “The Party” brought aid to the flooded slum while the state handed out promises it would not keep.
Readers of Lalami’s collection of short stories released in 2006 may reflect on the title of that highly acclaimed volume, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, as Youssef makes his way through a labyrinth populated by corrupt commercial interests, inept government employees, “The Party,” and news media with a spider web of conflicting agendas.
Lalami’s prose and plot in Secret Son are devoid of moralizing and sentimentality, and therein lies the power of her story. The story is not unkind; it’s ardently realistic. While the conclusion of Youssef’s essentially illegitimate journey into the treacherous world outside his claustrophobic station is by no means predictable, it’s as inevitable as Icarus’ fall from the spacious sky.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Malcolm R. Campbell for POD Book Reviews and More, 2/28