by Heidi Simmons
A Story in “Unseen” Layers
Alif the Unseen
By G. Willow Wilson
One of the great joys of reading is the places it can take you. New worlds, cultures, ideas are but a few of the treasures we seek in an entertaining read. Good prose allows us to engage with a character and be caught up with his or her fears, concerns and ambitions. G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, (Grove Press, 440 pages) has all the right enticing elements for a refreshing and provocative narrative but falls short when it comes to a compelling main character and a plot that can live up to its thematic meaning.
Alif is an avatar for a twenty something programmer and hacker who lives in an unnamed Middle Eastern Emirate. His many clients require cyber anonymity in a country that spends a large portion of its budget policing the Internet to keep tabs on its people. Alif is an outsider because he’s half Arab and half East Indian; his full Persian upper-class girlfriend leaves him when her father betroths her to another man.
Angry at his now ex-girlfriend, Alif writes a brilliant computer program to get back at her for “never wanting to see him again.” Ironically, it falls into the hands of the government and puts him and his clients in jeopardy. The Ex also bestows an ancient book to Alif further complicating his life. The chief enforcer, called “The Hand,” wants him and the book at any cost for its wisdom, knowledge and the power it still possesses.
This is not in any way a boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back story set in the Islamic world. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) In fact, the boy/girl relationship has little to do with the greater narrative. This book is all about the “unseen” world. Thematically, Alif the Unseen has layers upon layers of mystical, magical, religious and philosophical connotations and meanderings.
One example: the name “Alif” is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. There is a special way to write the letter and it is symbolic of God’s presence. It is described as the first line of code ever written in the Quran. Wilson is very much in control of these layers of meaning that give Alif The Unseen its thematic depth.
The novel, likely set in our current day and time, though not specifically stated, and in an unnamed place ruled by religious tyranny (though it is very much like Iran), Wilson merges the complex and challenging modern world with the magical and spiritual world of the ancient Middle East.
Some of the best moments and writing are when Alif hooks-up with Vikram the Vampire, a satanic shape-shifting character, who aids him in his battle against “The Hand.” He calls Alif “younger brother” and “son of Adam.” He is a Jinn. Made by the same Creator only at a different time in history. Vikram serves as a guide and takes Alif to a parallel universe to authenticate and understand the nature of the ancient book. Not unlike like Harry Potter going through the wall at the train station, Alif enters another realm that is beautiful and dangerous. Unfortunately they do not spend enough time there.
The domain of the magical, mystical and spiritual is delightful to read but for this reader it was difficult to stay interested and involved when the main character Alif was so unlikable. Frankly, I did not care about him or his plight. There is just too much of Alif.
Perhaps I did not fully grasp the story as it makes many references to Arab words and phrases that go without any explanation. Not understanding made me feel that I was not suppose to know because I am an outsider — specifically, a dumb American.
Wilson, an American herself, is a recent convert to Islam who now lives in Egypt. Clearly she has a passion for her new religion and all the wonderful mysticism that accompanies it. She is a capable writer and I appreciated her ability to show the gap between the spiritual and the secular worlds.
If there were 150 less pages, I think the layers would be more potent and more easily seen.