Secret Son portrays the life of a young man in a Casablanca slum trying to find his way. Caught between the stories of orphanhood and struggle his mother raised him on and the discovery of his real family, Youssef tries to understand who he is versus the various roles that society asks him to play.
As a fatherless boy from a poor area, Youssef’s prospects are limited until he finds a glimmer of hope in the discovery of his unknown wealthy father. Youssef is suddenly thrust into the elite circles of Casablanca life. As he tries to fit into this new world, he must navigate college, friendships, life as a working man, and the opposing wishes of his parents — the mother who raised him, and the father he always wanted.
Ultimately, Youssef’s uncertainty leads him astray, and he must find a way out. Like many disillusioned adults, he turns to the only people who seem to understand his struggle, a local political organization who promise to help the people of Morocco.
For the first part of this story, Youssef is the only point-of-view character. However, this changes when the meeting between he and his father is told first from his father’s perspective, and then again from Youssef’s. In this and other mirrored scenes, the reader is able to understand the interior thoughts of each participant — how they react to and often misunderstand each other. I found myself relating to each of the characters in different ways, whether Youssef’s desperation for a path forward, his mother’s attempts to set him on that path, and his father’s hope for a brighter future with his newfound son. Other characters, as well, helped to fill in the gaps between these three, to give the reader a full picture of the history of this family.
The abrupt ending and non-finality of any characters’ stories were surprising but fitting. The notions of Family, Identity, and Home don’t have beginnings, middles, and ends. They are relationships an individual evolves over time that shape one’s decisions and outlook, but rarely settle in one place.
Lalami captured the turmoil of family, of adolescence, and of despair amidst social stagnation in ways that many will be able to relate to. Great story.