I admit it: the first feeling that I had when I saw Laila Lalami’s novel was relief, relief that it was obviously shorter than so many of the novels I wanted to read so quickly as part of the Orange Prize longlist reading I wanted to do.

Not very propitious, but that was it. I hadn’t read her collection of stories, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (although I had heard good things). And I wasn’t particularly drawn to the cover image (the covers for The White Woman on the Green Bicycle and The Little Stranger appealed more immediately). And I hadn’t read any reviews.

So I went into it without either trepidation or enthusiasm. You know what I mean? That mostly-neutral “okay, here we go” approach to a book?  It sounds a little lack-lustre when I put it like that, doesn’t it? But I rather wish that I met more books this way, without too many expectations, positive or otherwise.

And I haven’t read many (possibly any) other novels set in Morocco, so the setting was definitely unfamiliar to me; I’ve never met characters who had the opportunity to say things like “You have to come home to Casablanca with me”. (Although maybe Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew over it in Vol de nuit?) My knowledge of Casablanca is limited to what I learned from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but don’t let lack of familiarity put you off Laila Lalami’s novel: it’s rooted in themes that cross geographic boundaries. The cultural context I lack was presented seamlessly so that I was immersed first in character and the rest just came naturally.

In some ways it would be interesting to compare Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs with Laila Lalami’s Secret Son, as both novels consider their young characters’ struggle to define themselves, to find a place in which they feel they belong. (There are many other comparisons and contrasts that could be made here, obviously, but I’m thinking in terms of this year’s Orange Prize nominees, so Moore’s novel comes immediately to mind, and M.J. Hyland’s male narrator is of similar age as well.)

Secret Son opens with Youssef, poised to begin his first year of college (as was Tassie in Lorrie Moore’s novel). His identity has just been fundamentally rocked by learning that the story his mother has told him about his father was untrue.

“Youssef thought of all the summer days he had spent in that musty bookstore storage room, reading. He had always felt a special kinship with the fatherless heroes of literature — from Inspector Ali to Tom Sawyer, from Batman to David Copperfield — but now he saw that all along he had been like everyone else; he had a father and a mother.”

Shortly afterward, he thinks: “The only thing worse than the hell of not knowing where he belonged, he thought, was the hell of knowing.” I’m not going to include spoilers here but I think the title itself is spoiler enough, revealing that Youssef’s shifting identity requires a degree of secrecy and is couched in deception.

At first he clings to the untouched elements. “These two were his best friends, his gang, his rba’a, the people with whom he spent all his free time. He had always been a part of this group at least, in spite of his terrible shame and his unspeakable secret.”

But as other parts of his identity transform, even what he believed immutable begins to alter. Where Youssef once belonged is now as unfamiliar as the new territories he has access to.

Amal, too, a young woman at the end of her college years, studying abroad in L.A., faces similar disorientation when her family visits from Casablanca. “She opened the door for them, forgetting that Moroccans do not open doors for departing guests for fear of giving the impression that the guests are unwelcome. Months later, she would remember this moment and wonder whether this was the first sign of her having become a different person, or the last.”

Youssef and Amal have come of age in different communities; their contrasting class experiences have varied dramatically, but they face the same complex questions of identity and both wrestle — in their own way — with the fact that the world requires a certain amount of pretense of them, which is uncomfortable — restraining, even prohibitive — for each of them.

Ultimately I found Amal’s voice more credible. Youssef is a sensitive young man and I can believe that (especially given that a greater sensitivity may have come from his mother’s attentive parenting and the increased amount of time that he spent with her growing up, with her as a single parent and he as an only child), but there were times when I felt that his observations reached beyond his experience. For instance: “Youssef was ashamed to see he was more like a mistress than a son: he spent hours waiting for a man to show up and was happy only when they were together. What was becoming of him?” It’s a great parallel to draw, but it pulls from experiences Youssef has not had.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed this novel very much and I was surprised by the pull the characters exerted on me. Amal, for instance, is not introduced until more than halfway through the novel, but I found myself just as invested in her happiness. It was, as I expected, a quicker read than many of the books that I’ve read with this month’s Orange-Prize-ness in mind, but not because it had fewer pages, but because I was so immediately and consistently engaged in the story.  I look forward to following this writer‘s career.

On Mondays and Thursdays in the months of May and April, I am Buried in Print.
Current 2010: 5 Read and Bookchatted, 11 Still To Read, 4 Can’t find.