I just finished Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. This is the first time I’ve had the energy to tear through an entire book in a 24 hour period in quite a while, and I’m glad I didn’t waste on anything less good than Alif. I know that it was on the New York Times list of the top books from 2012, but I can’t believe I waited. It was fantastic. And, doing some research on her just now, I realized that she’s the writer behind the graphic novel series Air (which if you haven’t read, you deserve to treat yourself to that odd little tale). Anywho, back to this review.
Wilson’s story follows “Alif,” a computer hacker in an unnamed Muslim country, who has to flee his shuddered world of computers and online shennanigans to run from the state police who have discovered where his base of operations is located. He inadvertently takes his next door neighbor Dina on the run with him and a copy of the Alf Yeom, the 1,001 Days, a collection of stories containing the wisdom of the djinn that has the capability of revolutionizing the world. Or perhaps just revolutionizing belief. Or perhaps nothing at all. It’s all a matter of perception and belief. This story follows Alif on the run from the state police as he finds out that not believing in something isn’t a great reason for it not to exist at all.
Wilson does a fantastic job keeping the narrative moving throughout this book, and you find yourself being sucked further and further on when you really just meant to read one more page before going to check on dinner in the oven. Even for someone like me who only has a passing understanding of many Muslim terms and Arabic expressions, the story is so engaging that you don’t mind that you might be missing a few pertinent details here and there. Also, it was great atmospheric writing about a Muslim world in turmoil, like if Willa Cather tried to write a novel about the French Revolution. I mean, seriously.
The novel attacks the idea of belief from several perspectives, and this may be one of the book’s strongest points. The next door neighbor Dina believes in the literal meaning of the Qur’an, and is thus able to perceive some of the spirit world that inhabits the same place she lives whereas Alif is blind to things he can’t see. This is put into contrast to computer code and invisible friendships of hacker communities that form Alif’s primary bonds before the story starts. He believes in the intangible of the electronic world, but he can’t process the intangible truths that may be lurking in faith systems. This is just one tenet, and I don’t want to ruin the story arc for you by getting into some of the later stuff, but you owe it to yourself to read this.
This is Wilson’s first novel, and I hope she keeps it up because while this was a slight left turn from my usual fare, it was well worth the detour.
JMF Rating: 8.5/10
‘Til next time,