Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson, pub. Corvus Books

I think this might be the first novel to take a computer geek for a hero and make a real success of it. The problem has been that sitting in front of a screen typing has never, hitherto, had much dramatic or narrative potential. But if you set your scene in the months leading up to the Arab Spring, in an unidentified, heavily censored society where using the internet is a way of evading and thwarting the state security system, and if you further exploit the parallels between the virtual, the fictional and the magical worlds, things can quickly become far more interesting.

Alif (his screen handle; he chooses not to use his real name) spends his young life online helping others avoid state censorship; doesn't matter what of, or what state, though he does have to devote a lot of resources to outwitting the security forces of the one he lives in. Disappointed in love, he devises a program designed to make himself invisible online to his ex. But it does far more than he ever intended and he finds himself on the run from the state's own leading computer expert. In the process he discovers that the online world is not the only one where people can be unknown and unseen by others, where nobody goes by their right name and the barriers between the real and the fictional are permeable to say the least.

Me, I'm a sucker for any book that offers djinns, afreets, ancient books of cryptic fairytales, solid walls that reveal hidden entrances to alleys that exist in another dimension, and cats that aren't quite what they seem. But even if you aren't usually a devotee of novels with a fantasy element, this one might be the exception, because it is also sharply modern and political. Most of all, it is about how little any of us know about the richness of each other's inner worlds, as Alif finds when his friend Dina, who has worn the veil since girlhood, throws it over his head to shelter him:

He could not have guessed the world she had created for herself. Sewn into the underside of her long outer cloak were patches of bright silk, patterned, beaded, spangled with points of light

The author is an American living in Cairo, who has previously written journalism for opposition papers and blogs, and graphic novels. If this is what happens when a history graduate specialising in Arabic literature meets new media, I'm all for it. When two worlds collide, whether east and west or ancient and modern, something new and interesting is always liable to happen on the faultline.
Tags: book reviews, litfic, novels

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