Set in an unnamed city in the Persian Gulf, against the backdrop of an Arabian spring, Alif the Unseen concerns the coming-of-age of Alif, a talented underground hacker, who comes into possession of a mysterious old book which soon enough leads him into worlds unseen and dangers previously unimagined, on both sides of the reality barrier. It’s a clever tale about the nature of stories, and of that of belief, whether it is our belief about what constitutes reality, or belief about what constitutes foreignness or the Other.
On the surface, it’s a thrilling read, with a strong plot, pleasingly high on incident; a heady mix of the exotic east, hacker culture and mythic elements. Dialogue is snappy and unforced, even when framed as cyber chat. There is very little exposition framed as monologues, with the exception of a regrettable set piece or two with the disappointingly voluble villain. Wilson is exceptionally good at sensual realism, grounding the mythical and the everyday in richly observed and layered colour. The City, with its translucent quarts walls, which turns a golden salmon colour at sunset, is vividly realised, “at a crossroads between the earthly world and the Empty Quarter, the domain of ghouls and effrit who can take the shapes of beasts”, “overrun by tourists and oil men”, smelling of salt and hot sand in the evenings. She has a keen eye for contrasts, describing the Old Quarter as a place with “…low-slung harem balconies extended out over the street, their latticed arches reminders of a time when architectural mercies were the extent of an aristocratic woman’s public life.”) and the modern university campus as “…glass boxes designed by some French architect with a perverse sense of humor who, now that women were permitted to attend the university, apparently desired to put them on display.” She’s good with all the senses, but it was especially smell that I noticed (Alif is described as smelling of “copper wire and rare earth elements and electricity”) how few authors pay attention to the reader’s olfactory experience.
In a book about hacking, there must of course be technology, and Wilson writes wittily about this too. It’s always interesting to see how modern authors handle the pervasive presence of technology, and Wilson deftly blends our always-on habits into the narrative. Alif expresses surprise at having computer access in the house of effrit, and is told: “’Brother, said the shadow, we’ve got WiFi.”
But what makes Wilson’s book so outstanding is her insight into middle-eastern life, both on its own terms, and when interacting with the dominant western culture, and here she contributes an enlightened and open-minded perspective. There is a scene, just over the halfway mark, where Alif is comforted by a companion when she throws her veil over his head and creates a quiet womb-like space for the two of them: “The darkness soothed Alif’s dazzled eyes. After a moment his pupils adjusted, lessening the smarting pain in his head. He could not have guessed the world she created for herself. Sewn into the underside of her long outer cloak were patches of bright silk: patterned, beaded, spangled with points of light; they hung above him like a tent…” It’s a beautiful moment in the book, when the young, impulsive, clever-but-immature Alif begins to grow up, as he learns to recognise value beyond the external. It is of course also a pointed metaphor for how Arabian culture is viewed, or rather, not viewed – we fail too often to look beyond the veils and problematic traditionalism to appreciate a culture that has its own, different richness.
A canny use of a western character (an American university profession, referred to throughout as “the convert”) highlights these tensions further. She seems to Alif sullen and prickly, and their relationship is characterised by a “brittle distance” they both wish to keep. Alif’s reaction upon meeting her is telling (and also very funny): “’No. No way. I don’t want foreigners involved in my business. Djinn are one thing but I draw the line at Americans.’” But when she confronts his prejudice, it is an entirely different bias that suddenly comes to the fore: “’It doesn’t matter to you what concessions we make – whether we dress respectfully, learn the language, follow all the insane rules about when to speak and how and to whom. I even adopted your religion – adopted it, out of my own free will, thinking I was doing something noble and righteous. But it’s not enough. You’ll always second-guess every thought and opinion that comes out of my mouth, even when I talk about my own fucking country.’” Surely the experience of far too many middle-eastern immigrants in western countries? Alif begins to understand that Anglos, rather than belonging “to some other, more ethereal, way of being” were as mired in the same “anxieties of identity and displacement he suffered” from. It is by no means an apology for the excesses of fundamentalism, but rather a measured depiction of a culture all too often obfuscated by years of negative press. Wilson tackles it in a delightfully original way, arguing instead for a common humanity, worth exploring and prizing.
Alif the Unseen is a rollicking adventure story, but it is also a clever, thought-provoking book. Highly recommended.