G. Willow Wilson,
Alif the Unseen
(Grove Press, 2012)

I like imaginary books-within-books along the lines of Italo Calvino and AS Byatt, so a book featuring a magical counterpart to the "Thousand & One Nights" sounded absolutely delicious. I'm also a fantasy reader, so I sat back and prepared to be dazzled. I wasn't, quite. Alif the Unseen is a page-turner bursting with interesting ideas and perspectives and plenty of adventure to boot, but it stops just short of rocking my world.

Our hero is a young man and hacker who goes by the screen name Alif, after the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. His clients are a motley crew of rebels -- pornographers, bloggers, Islamists, activists -- who defy the totalitarian state through the anonymity of the Internet. Alif's life takes an unexpected turn when his upperclass girlfriend drops him and he writes a new computer program to ensure she'll never be able to find him online. The program, which recognizes individual users by their keystrokes and other typing patterns, ends up working a little too well when the state gets a hold of it.

Suddenly, Alif is on the run. His girlfriend's parting present, an old and rather peculiar book called The Thousand & One Days, turns out to be a magnet for the bizarre as well as the ruthless. It could just have the power to undo reality -- or rebuild it.

There's a little of everything in Alif the Unseen -- djinns, philosophy, literary criticism, politics, religion, love, a car chase. It's chock full of ideas to think about and forced me to question some of my assumptions about Muslim women who choose the veil. Actually, I think the book may have been most interesting for me as a glimpse into life in a totalitarian Middle Eastern state. I didn't feel that the fantasy elements were as fully fleshed out, and the explanations for The Thousand & One Days and its nature seemed more perfunctory than mind blowing.

I could nitpick at the ending, which is at the same time a little too long and a little too tidy, and the characters -- the secondary ones are somehow much more interesting than the primary ones -- but overall, Alif the Unseen is a highly readable and very impressive debut.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

6 April 2013

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