Ambitious, Original, Flawed – ‘Alif the Unseen’ by G Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is as a refreshing and original book as you’ll come across this year. Whilst I admired much of it and was entertained by a lot of it, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I’d hoped.

First the premise. Alif lives in an unspecified Middle Eastern country. A country held in the grip of an authoritarian regime. A computer genius, Alif is part of an underground movement dedicated to spreading information and fomenting change. He is a young man in love with the wrong woman. Alif’s family is not wealthy, not part of the elite, but his girlfriend’s, Inistar, is. The two are secretly married.

As the novel opens Inistar tells Alif that they can no longer see one another. Her father forbids it, and intends to marry her to a powerful man close to the heart of the regime. She insists that Alif never see her again. Alif takes her at her word, by attempting to create a computer program that can determine a person’s identity by the words they use and the way they type them. An impossibility Alif thinks, until it works. The security implications of this are manifold. Can this algorithm give Alif and his coven of hackers an advantage over the mysterious ‘Hand’, their government employed adversary?

The opening 100 pages of Alif the Unseen read like a Cory Doctorow novel (in particular, For the Win) set during the Arab spring. The dialogue between hackers is snappy, and the oppression felt by the nation’s youth is articulately conveyed. Added to this blend is the enigmatic Dina, a devout Muslim who has donned the niqab. For many reasons Dina is the star of the novel, but her initial role seems to be to help western readers realise how little they know about life in the middle east.

With government forces closing in, Alif and Dina are forced to go on the run. It is here things take a peculiar turn. A unseen parallel world emerges, in which Jinn and Efreets exist, and, at the centre of the tale, lies a book. ‘The Thousand and One Days’ is a Jinn penned counterpart of the ‘1001 Nights’. Alif finds himself in possession of the world’s only copy. He struggles to find meaning in text, whilst his enemies relentlessly hunt him down. If he evades capture he may liberate a nation, but failure will doom his countrymen to total subjugation.

Alif’s world is full of layers; the political elite and the hoi-polloi exist alongside one another with almost no interaction, as does Alif’s underground digital network. Then there are the disappeared (political prisoners); another layer of unseen people. Layers of cloth conceal Dina from the world and layers of meaning in the Koran and the 1001 days are pivotal to the plot. In essence the hidden city filled with Jinn and demons is just another layer, but the novel’s other-worldly elements weren’t entirely convincing.

There are some great elements to this book but I didn’t find they combined to make a satisfactory whole. There are a number of confusing dream/hallucination scenes that are vital to the novel, that were so ethereal I found it nigh on impossible to work out what was supposed to have happened. The whole novel hinges around of Alif’s invention of a new type of computer code, based around metaphorical interpretation of program code, but I couldn’t for the life of me fathom how it was supposed to work. Maybe I was being dim or perhaps the ‘how’ was unimportant, but considering it was vital to the story I felt a more exhaustive explanation was necessary to hold the novel together.

Wilson has crafted beautiful blocks with which to build her story but failed to supply the mortar that binds them together. The book functions well as an insight into feelings on the streets during the Arab Spring, nicely as an Arabian folklore primer, brilliantly as a treatise on the power and malleability of the written word, but it fails as a coherent story. Whilst I usually have no problem with an other-worldy presence in my fiction, I can’t help feeling this novel would have been more powerful without its supernatural characters. The central jinn character is a well-drawn enigmatic rogue, but the Jinn nation, and how it interacts with ours, was under-powered and confusing.

I also feel Wilson took a soft option with her denouement. Without giving too much away, she leads the reader to believe one thing, before revealing that it’s not quite so. The reveal changes the novel’s tone dramatically. Without the switch, the novel would have been darker, more realistic and ultimately stronger and more thought provoking. What is left feels a little bit Hollywood.

I am disappointed that I didnt enjoy Alif’s adventures more. Wilson writes brilliant, incisive and observant prose, but I was unable to suspend my belief long enough to fully recommend it. Whether this is the reader’s or author’s fault I’m not sure. ‘Alif the Unseen’ has many things going for it, not least of which is its originality. It wasn’t quite the novel for me, but I do feel I’ve learned things from reading it, and feel richer for having done so.

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5 thoughts on “Ambitious, Original, Flawed – ‘Alif the Unseen’ by G Willow Wilson

  1. Lovely balanced review that shows your er, workings as well as your conclusion. I’ve seen a couple of reviews of this already but hadn’t figured out quite what its core was – politics, fantasy or cultural primer – sounds like it is all three!

    1. Thanks Alex! It was a tough book to review. The book has so much going for it, but doesn’t seem to be able to settle to what it wants to be. It’s also one of those where its flaws are tangled up with the plot, so hard to critique without spoiling.

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