I'm glad now that I couldn't track down a paper copy of Laila Lalami's Secret Son at the local library. If I had I would never have found myself listening to the audio version while I walked the familiar route to work and back again over the past two weeks. I know (although I'm ashamed to admit it) that I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much in the more usual format. I can imagine that on paper I would have torn through it at speed, because of the clean and unadorned prose and the languid plot, and would not have taken the necessary time to get to know it. It wouldn't have buried so determinedly under my skin, and I wouldn't have felt or envisioned it half so keenly. I feel sure that I wouldn't have appreciated it for what it is either, which is a beautifully paced and thematically subtle piece of work that constantly wrongfoots your expectations and draws strength from the time it takes to tell a deceptively simple story of truth and lies. It is a lesson in why not to be a hasty reader.
Meet Yousseff El Mekki, walking down the street with his hands in his pockets, wearing the confidence of youth. He is the illegitimate son of a phenomenally successful business man, but he doesn't know it yet. At eighteen years old, he is fit, healthy and about to start a degree in English Literature at college, his future a giddy dreamscape pieced together from old American movies and teenage boast-talk. Never mind that he lives in one of the most notorious slums in Casablanca, or that his country of Morocco is full of eager young men just like him, hopelessly unemployed and scrabbling for menial jobs. Never mind that his neighbourhood has been abandoned by the state, or that his friends hang about on street corners for want of anything better to do. He doesn't have much, but he has this: he believes he knows who he is. He thinks he is the son of a hard-working widow, an orphan herself, and that his father was a schoolteacher who died when he was just a baby, in a freak accident while helping to hang fairylights on a neighbour's house. This identity gives him a place in the world, somewhere to call home. So you can imagine that when his mother confesses to him that his father is in fact still alive, and has been living in Casablanca all along, with his real wife and daughter, it as though Yousseff's anchor has been cut. Waves of anger, ennui, despair and shame combine with a fierce but directionless determination to make a place for himself.
He looks about him on his college campus and sees students of different religions, cultures and tribes snug in their cliques, but feels that he belongs nowhere. He tries protesting against corruption, but only gets broken ribs for his trouble; he tries loosing his virginity to a rich girl but only ends up cheap and used. Meeting and getting to know his father gives him some temporary comfort, as does the companionship and support of members of 'The Party', a partisan religious organisation that has sought replaced the government in his slum home. But it is not easy to find a place to belong when nothing around you is what it seems, when there are ulterior motives behind every kindness, and messy sectarian politics driving the simplest actions and exchanges. This, I suppose, is a story that could be told the globe over - disaffected youth seeks meaning in all the wrong places. But what Secret Son does so well, and with such aplomb, is to marry its political backdrop with the personal story at its heart, to ground Yousseff's entirely believable turmoil in what are often shocking and terrifying contexts. Thus Lalami juxtaposes young men downloading Jihadi propaganda on the same internet cafe computers that they use to view free porn and discuss the relative sexual merits of the local girls. It at once captures the tragic irony and the, well, the dreadful mundanity of extremism. She shows how easy it is for charismatic leaders to manipulate a person's reasonable desire for meaning in their lives into something twisted and lonely. None of which is really new, but the insight is so deftly handled here that it feels new.
If you hadn't already guessed it, Secret Son is not a book about happy endings. It is brutally honest for a novel of its kind. There is no last-minute rescue here, no escape; Yousseff is too tangled in the legacy of secrets and lies propagated by his parents, his country and 'The Party' to be the master of his own fate. When it comes the final betrayal he endures is gut-wrenchingly realistic. It literally stopped me in my tracks half way across the staff carpark.
Except, maybe there is some hope to had, if of a depressingly realistic kind. Lalami introduces a new point-of-view character over half way into the novel: Amal, Yousseff's legitimate half-sister. She has grown up in luxury, believing herself to be her father's only child and enjoying all the benefits of his wealth: the best schools, the best clothes, fancy cars, holidays abroad and a prestigious degree from the USA. But while in America she has met and fallen in love with Fernando, a freelance photographer who definitely does not constitute a suitable partner in the eyes of her parents. Forced to choose between Fernando and her father's expectations, and then confronted with the existence of Yousseff, she is not blown off course as thoroughly or as permanently as he is. She is his liberated twin, what he could have been if he had been given the tools - the confidence, the sense of entitlement - to extricate himself from his fate and form himself a new and independent identity. What he could have been if he hadn't been so poor and so ignorant. In this sense Secret Son is also about social class, and the vast gulf that divides the people who can get to a better life only in their dreams and the people who can fly there on an aeroplane.
Lalami is also a short story writer, and like many short story writers she works the reader hard. The power of her work is in its unspoken implications rather than in the bones of the story itself or the flaunting of the prose. I feel as though I had to stew it a while before I got the flavour out. Which is why listening to the Audible reading in 30 minute segments, with forced pauses between, was hugely conducive to appreciating its subtlety. I find myself a real and unexpected admirer, and I look forward to reading Lalami's short story collection, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.