Friday, January 8, 2010

Secret Son

Secret Son by Laila Lalami, 2009.

Now this was a bad book. It has some interesting description and themes, and at times a very engaging exploration of the class divide in contemporary Morocco, but overall the novel fails on issues of prose, plot and character.

The prose is perhaps the most jarring defect. Most of the dialog is servicable, but a given statement is frequently ruining by a character musing to themself after it, beating a given dead horse and destroying any expectation of subtltety or ust in the reader. There seem to be one of these sentences every few pages, and they wreck reader patience, violence 'show, don't tell' and drastically weaken the development of the novel.

The plot doesn't particularly help in that regards, being too melodramatic by far. Furthermore, the author seems to feel that this type of story will be unfamiliar to the readers, and invests the meager plot twists with all the shock of monumental upheavels. The story itself is--leaving out the last forty pages which merit their own point--is quite conventional for the initial setup. A boy in his late teens discovers that his father isn't dead as he was told, instead he was the bastard product of his mother's illicit liaison with a (married) upper-class man. He goes to Daddy, who is shocked, shocked to learn he has a son (he knew his lover had gotten pregnant but she left then and he assumed she'd gotten an abortion). Daddy helps his *secret son* with pride, status and a lot of cash, the son enjoys entering into a higher class and the goods and sex he now has access to. But, the father's wife finds out about the whole sordid situation (not, you know, in the actual story or anything dramatic like that, but we hear about it second hand) and the father cuts off the son, who is sad that he no longer has the monies and sex.

The characterization didn't bother me at first, but across a novel's span it proved flat and predictable. Worst in this regard is the author's habit of showing an important scene first from one character's perspective, then the others. The dialog is identical, and seeing the thoughts and perceptions of another character when you know what's going to be said just underscores how one-note and predictable these people are. One area I thought was better in this was the daughter of the father, half-sister to the *secret son*. She had a number of scenes of studying in LA, they didn't have much connection to the plot, but they were better written, more nuanced in characterization, and at the end this could have been a much stronger book if it focused on her expectations and problems rather than her idiot family.

Still, all the problems I've described would make this a weak book but not a bad one, until the ending. See, the son being sad because he didn't have the love and monies wasn't actually the end of the book. At this point, he goes to the local Islamic fundamentalist party (called simply the Party, clearly having studied their Orwell), and after a ten minute conversation agrees to murder a reporter that's been critical of the Party, all for the cause. Now, this movement had been a presence across the novel, both in criticizing the corruption and oppression of Moroccan society and in being criticized for it. Now, for most of the book I thought this was one of the strongest elements--a little pat and simplistic in presentation perhaps, but reflecting a part of the society in a quiet background way. This all gets ruined when they step into the main plot, and make everything too melodramatic by far. This also makes a hash of the protagonist's characterization--while he's angry at his father for rejecting him and by extension the larger upper class society that he's excluded from, him being lead to an active identification with the Party happens far too quickly (they basically give a lot of two-bit rhetoric and a short video on all the terrible things that happen to Muslims across the world) and him actually agreeing to slit the throat of the reporter is just absurd, particularly as the man was a minor friend of his and he knew quite well he was a decent man active in attacking abuses of all kinds. His agreement makes the whole moral and psychological calculas of the novel absurd. Now, granted, he quickly regrets his commitment and tried, ineffectively, to stop the secondary assassin. But still.

Similar to and better than: John Updike's The Terrorist.
Similar to and worse than: Sharnush Parsipur's Woman Without Men. Drastically worse than, given I'd actually recommend the later.

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