A 30-year old Moroccan Arab, Nabil Amrani, gets entangled in an adulterous relationship with his pregnant wife’s nurse, Rachida, and this results in pregnancy. To save the honor of her family, Nabil’s mother sacks the nurse. Nabil gives her some money to go get an abortion. All this is kept a secret from Malika, Nabil’s legitimate wife.
Malika gives birth to a girl, Amal. Initially the gender issue does not matter to Nabil, but later on when the subject of inheritance surfaces, it becomes an issue and Nabil regrets not having a son. When fired, Rachida relocates to Casablanca, keeps the pregnancy and five months after Amal is born, she gives birth to a son, Youssef. Nobody, not even Nabil, is aware of this.
Rachida does not tell her son who his real father is, but one day the boy confronts his mother and learns the truth. He decides to trace his father, who though surprised to learn that he has a secret son, is somewhat relieved that he has a male offspring to inherit his business empire.
All the while, Nabil’s daughter Amal grows up thinking that she is the only offspring of her father. At some point in time she goes to the USA to get some education. While there she moves in with Fernando, a photographer. Her parents find this out and get furious for, according to them, she has caused a clash of cultures and brought dishonor to her family.
A yawning emotional gulf develops between parents, on one side, and daughter, on the other side. But at the time of her graduation, they visit her, try to persuade her to break up the relationship and to return to Morocco. She accedes to their wish. During this visit Nabil confesses to his daughter the affair he had several years ago, a secret that Malika had by then learned. Nabil’s confession infuriates her daughter and makes her depressed.
Just when Youssef is beginning to enjoy his new life with his father, disaster strikes, thanks to the orchestrations of his stepmother Malika. He is forced to return to the slums where he grew up, where he is welcomed by the sympathy of his mother and the taunts of his friend, Amin.
A running theme in the novel is the political rivalry between Hatim Lahlou of the Party, which seemed to represent the poor class, and Farid Benaboud, who represents the world of the wealthy – the world into which Youssef has been brutally denied entry and which he now loathes. Youssef falls prey to the politics around him, when Hatim recruits him to carry out an assassination plot.
An enthralling read, Secret Son, provides a window into Moroccan society – a society that has its share of ills, from unemployment to adultery. The story explores the importance of love and family and how exclusion, poverty and unemployment can drive victims to acts of desperation.
Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She is the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and the novel Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize longlist.
Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, the Guardian, the New York Times, and in numerous anthologies.
She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Her new novel, The Moor’s Account, will be published in September 2014.