Alif the Unseen might be one of the most difficult books to summarise that I have encountered in my blogging years. It packs so many different aspects into one book that I am having difficulty doing the book justice and yet not spoiling all. Nevertheless, I will try.
Alif is the handle of a hacker who prefers to call himself by that name in real life. Living in a city in the Middle East that is threatening to undergo a revolution, Alif is constantly fighting the regime’s “hand”, as they call him, because he hosts internet space for a number of parties, regardless of their political affiliations.
When Alif meets the aristocratic Intisar, he believes he is in love. He arranges a wedding document that they both sign and they promise to spend their lives together. However, when Intisar’s father promises her to someone else, Alif’s world threatens to fall apart. As a parting gift, Intisar gives Alif a mysterious book, The Thousand and One Days.
Soon, Alif world is threatened by much more than the loss of his love.The Hand finds out where he lives, and from one day to the next he is on the run from the hand, while also trying to figure out the meaning of the mysterious book now in his possession. Helped by his next door neighbour and pious Muslim, Dina, as well as the otherworldly creature Vikram the Vampire, Alif tries to understand how the powers locked in the Thousand and One Days and the threats he experiences at the hand of “the hand” relate.
Alif the Unseen combines a lot of things that I love with each other: a story about the power of stories; a strong female character (more than anything else, I loved Dina in this book, she is one superb character); a story where cyberspace as a “fictional realm”, the “real” world, and the “supernatural” realm intertwine; a story with a wink to contemporary politics in its portrayal of the revolutions in the Middle East; a story about the oppressing sides, and the beautiful empowering sides to religion; a coming-of-age story. Those and many more things can be found in Alif the Unseen.
I loved Alif the Unseen for acknowledging the complicatedness of the world. For never taking the characteristics of “right” or “wrong” for granted. For reflecting on how cyberspace empowers people, but also makes the real world and the inhuman conditions under which some people have to live seem more removed, and somehow fictional. I particularly loved how Dina, a strict religious girl who keeps to her own morals and is often misunderstood by those around her, is given room to flourish into the best character ever. (Can I just point out how refreshing it is to see a Muslim girl portrayed as a character of her own and not just a stock trope of “oppressed girl”). I also enjoyed the way Wilson makes use of the concept of the djinn and gives her own spin to this religious concept. And I loved how Alif the Unseen wants to question the strict divide between rational and irrational, that we have so often taken for granted in a world that views itself as mostly secular.
And yet.. for however much I loved these elements in and of themselves, I could not love Alif the Unseen unconditionally. Many have sung this book’s praises, and I can see where they are coming from, but reading it myself I felt both excitement and hesitancy, and that feeling never wholly gave way. As much as I wanted to love it, I can only subscribe to loving the idea of it more than I did its execution, which I felt was flawed in places.
For one, there was Alif himself, who got on my nerves a lot. He did improve as the story progressed, and I think my annoyance with him was part of what was intended; he is meant to grow into his own during the story, he is meant to leave his somewhat selfish teenage “woe is me” persona behind and grow into a more balanced person.. And I appreciate that he did. But the fact that he was very much preoccupied with himself, and nobody else, during the first third of the book, made me less eager to dive into it head first. I would have very much preferred a book from Dina’s point of view, even knowing where the story ends. However, that in itself should show you that this book is not a bad one. For in Dina, wonderful Dina, you find a character that is empowered, challenges the reader’s assumptions, and manages to evoke sympathy.
The second reason why I cannot sing this book’s praises as unconditionally as others have, is that the story at times felt a little off. The story didn’t always flow as naturally as it might have. And I couldn’t help but feel that at times, this might have had to do with the story trying to accomplish too many things at once. This, of course, is in part the magic of the story, but I also felt it might have taken away from it a little bit.
Other Opinions: The Sepculative Scotsman, largehearted boy, The Readventurer, Good Books & Good Wine, Book’d Out, In Bed With Books, Curious Book Fans, The Mad Hatter’s.
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