Alif is a 23-year-old ‘computer geek with girl issues’ living in an unnamed city called the City. All we know of it is that it’s situated somewhere in the Middle East, it’s divided into four districts and it seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to those states involved in the Arab Spring.
As the novel begins, Alif’s lover Intisar – a pure Arab from a wealthy family – has agreed to marry another wealthy Arab, chosen by her father. Both she and Alif know that her father would never consent to her marrying Alif who’s both poor and mixed-ethnicity. Before they part, she says to him:
“Make it so I never see your name again. Please, God, please – I can’t stand it.”
Alif does two things: one, he devises a programme named Tin Sari that he hopes will be able to identify Intisar regardless of whether she’s working from her regular IP address or not. His intention is that it will recognise keystrokes and idiolect and then ensure that, as she wished, she never sees his name online again. Two, he sends Dina, the girl next door (yes, literally, you can see where that one’s going), to Intisar’s house with a box containing their soiled sheets. Both of these things form the basis of the novel’s plot.
Dina returns from Intisar’s with a book called Alf Yeom wa Yeom. The Thousand and One Days. Moments later, Alif returns to their flats to discover a man standing outside their block. From this point on, he and Dina are on the run. But what does the man want? Revenge for Intisar? Tin Sari? The book? And who can they turn to for help in a city where there are spies everywhere – IRL (in real life) and online.
Alif the Unseen is not my usual sort of read. It has fantastical elements that (pardon the pun) bring a different dimension to the story and are used to further explore the theme of the unseen and whether it is possible to remain anonymous in a world where we have online identities and real life identities. It’s also an exploration of the Arab Spring and the power of the internet to bring down a regime, a regime that might not have the support of the people you might expect. And it’s a love story, as well as being a piece of metafiction about the power of stories.
Yes, it’s another book that tries to pack too much in. Which is unfortunate because, once I got to the second half, I quite enjoyed it. The first half I found difficult partly because there was so much going on and partly because the computer plot line centered around concepts that I struggled to get my head around – particularly the idea of a quantum computer, which I had to resort to Wikipedia to try and understand. (Turned out to be quite a fascinating concept.)
Overall, this is a good book but unfortunately not brilliant. I say unfortunately because learning about other cultures is one of the reasons I read and G. Willow Wilson can write/tell a good tale. I look forward to what she does next.
For someone much more au fait with this (I hate to say it) genre of writing, check out Matt at Reader Dad’s review.