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Secret Son

by Laila Lalami

Bookgroup Info readers are recommended to buy SECRET SON, and, opening it, savour its essential mystery and message of tragedy and hope, courage and love and treachery. This story is new and exciting, 'glorious, angry and wise'.

SECRET SON is set in Casablanca, a city with which few of us have more than a transient acquaintance. As tourists we may have visited Marrakesh, and of course we remember Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. But SECRET SON is about the real people of Casablanca, the rich and the poor, the Berbers, Arabs, Jews, Europeans and the shifting, restless population of in-betweens.

In the intense heat, in the poorest part of Casablanca, Hay an Najat, doors stand open to the narrow dirt street, and each television is tuned to different satellite channels, blaring out its news in a language of its own. It is in the stench of garbage, exhaust fumes, and old, refried sardines that this drama begins. Clothes lines criss-cross littered streets and cattle graze with stray dogs on rubbish heaps; youths stand idly smoking and gossiping at corners and children hawk single cigarettes; women carrying water make way for peddlers with their wares on their rickety bicycles; and drug addicts huddle in groups. Sometimes a group of women bringing a bride from the hammam sing out their joy and clap in rhythm to a bridal song.

Rachida Ouchak is engaged as nurse to Malika Amrani, whose troubled pregnancy requires complete bed rest. Rachida has little more to do than check Malika's pulse and blood pressure. She is not a servant, nor is she a guest, but she is a stunningly attractive, well-mannered girl, with aristocratic Berber good looks, and she speaks fluent and elegant French. And so it is that this sheltered but romantically minded convent girl, swooning with love, becomes the mistress of Malika's husband, Nabil. And innocent and ignorant as she is, she quickly becomes pregnant. It is Nabil's mother who finds out and sacks her, telling Malika that her nurse has been caught stealing. Nabil gives Rachida the money for an abortion, and that, as far as he is concerned, is the end of a brief but delightful affair. For him the world was the way it was, and he took it as it came, with no thought of anything outside his own well-being.

Rachida chooses to disappear completely from all family connections and to create a new life for herself and her child in Hay an Najat. She pretends to her neighbours that she was an orphan raised by nuns and widowed during early pregnancy. Her job as assistant at the local needy hospital has never been at risk but it hardly keeps herself and her son, Youssef, off the street. Nevertheless, Youssef grows, and goes to school, and makes friends with the local boys.

It is as Youssef passes his school-leaving exams, to his mother's great joy and relief, and begins at the University, that his life spirals out of control. He finds out who his father is, and, with the help of the telephone directory, manages to meet him. Nabil, whose wife Malika, has only produced the one daughter, is delighted. His only other child has defied and devastated him by moving in with her boyfriend. Nabil gives Youssef the key to his luxury flat, and Youssef takes readily to his amazing new life. He never returns to Hay an Najat: he drops his friends, and visits his mother while she is at the hospital, wearing tasselled loafters and his new polo shirt with the insignia of the Royal Golf Dar Es Salam. Rachida, doubting Nabil’s sincerity and losing her beloved son, can hardly be blamed for planning to get him back.

Moroccan-born Laila Lalami is known for her blog and owes her research of Casablanca in 2007 to her Fulbright Fellowship award. With its intriguing situations, excellent characterisation, wonderful dialogue and ever-surprising plot, SECRET SON is a superb and compelling read. Full marks, Laila Lalami.

Paula McMaster

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