1: Secret Son

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Secret Son

I have a basic policy of trying to read books written by bloggers with whom I have interacted.  I don’t really know these people, and perhaps it is a form of wanting a connection with the famous (used loosely), but I find it interesting to see how their writing works in long from as opposed to blogging. —From review of Secret Son at Collected Miscellany

For several years now, I’ve taken to scanning the shelves each time I hit a bookstore, looking for books by people I’m familiar with via their blogs (or forums). Partly it is wanting to see how book-form writing compares to blogging. And partly it’s my way of supporting fellow writers whose writing I have enjoyed for x years. Should I ever complete and publish a novel, I would hope my fan (I do have one!) would do the same.

Anyhow, it’s often easier said than done.* Want Dan Brown? No worries. Want Laila Lalami or Tayari Jones? Er…  So let me tell you, I was shocked when I saw Secret Son on the shelf in the Chapters on Robson in December. One copy. Hardcover. Y’all know I never buy hardcovers unless they’re on the remainder table. But then, in continuing to browse, more shock! I also found Jaden Hair’s Steamy Kitchen Cookbook and Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Cooking. So then I decided it must be my day and bought all three. Solstice prezzie to self! Hurrah!

Cookbook reviews to follow. For now, Secret Son.

I’ve read Laila Lalami’s blog for a long time. Since back when it was called Moorish Girl. Since before she published her first book (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which I have yet to find), when she was just another book blogger. One of the the things she’s written about is her decision to write in English (her third language). Part of it is that English is not fraught with the connotations that Arabic and French have for her. But as well, she’s writing for a predominantly English-speaking audience. I think translations can sometimes have the effect of erasing the language difference, i.e. you forget that you’re reading a translation and impose your own language-view on the text.

Here are excerpts from a couple reviews:

“Secret Son” gives us an insider’s view of the underlying turmoil of Morocco, access we probably wouldn’t have if she had written in another language. But something has been lost in her attempt to bypass translation: perhaps it’s the cadences of the inner courtyards of her upbringing. Her English prose, although clean and closely observed, lacks music, and her similes can be predictable, as when Youssef’s half sister, returning from California to Casablanca, feels “like a fish that had been taken out of water and put back.” —New York Times

Lalami’s portrayal of indecision, abetted by her characters’ plainly outlined conflicts, lacks tension. When she does successfully transcend her own stylistic shortcomings, which happens in two scenes that revisit key events from different characters’ perspectives à la Rashomon, such structural cunning is deadened by the same rhythmless style, where rage is always “blinding” and a character’s regret is expressed by the narrator’s asking, “What had he done with his life?” —Quarterly Conversation

What these criticisms of her writing style seem to be missing is that she’s made a deliberate choice to write that way, and I think it’s an important one. The way it’s written, to me, is designed to not let the reader slip into the mistake of thinking that the characters are native English speakers. It’s written the way a non-native English speaker, who is fluent in English, but for whom writing in English is still not the main way they communicate, writes in English. It’s one of the first things I noticed. Of course, the story is being told about the characters, but still, I think taking this approach of writing like the characters would in English makes sense because you don’t lose the sense of them being Moroccan.

The other thing is that its written in close third person. Multiple povs, yes, but close third. It’s not omniscient. Which means the writer is limited to what the characters know. She can’t break into a soliloquy on the Moroccan condition. So true, it’s not a “big” novel; it’s an intimate one. It’s looking at the world from the perspective of the characters, not looking at the characters from the perspective of The World. I actually loved the scenes that were seen from the perspectives of two characters, seeing the subtle differences between their remembrances. Really important for a novel so focused on truths and lies. I liked the ideas explored here: identity/family, dual loyalties, the old “education will set you free” trope ;-), choices (or lack thereof). I like that while the characters’ secrets are revealed, their problems aren’t solved.

It did seem like the pacing really sped up in the last quarter or so of the book, and I was wishing it would slow down a bit. But I’m going to have to think about whether or not that is a flaw or not. Although it felt like there was a rush to the ending, I can see how that might be intentional, designed to mimic how the MC, Youssef, was feeling.

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*Yes, I’m fully aware I could just order from Amazon. However, one of my great pleasures dating from pre-internet life is haunting bookstores new and used, looking for somewhat obscure titles. Nothing beats the heart-skip you get when you see a long sought-after book sitting on the shelf in front of you. Buying online does not provide the same thrill.