Nafiza Recommends: Alif the Unseen – G. Willow Wilson

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Hardcover, 433 pages
Published June 19th 2012 by Grove Press
Source: Purchased

“I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God.”

Dear People who Read Books,

Please read this book.

No, really, I mean it. Okay fine, I will tell you why you need to read this. The characters in this novel, while not being teenagers, are young adults and therefore this novel meets the criteria set (by me) to be called Young Adult. Okay, let me begin again. Properly this time.

Alif the Unseen is set in a city in Saudi Arabia and it is, perhaps, one of the few books I have read that manage to write in a setting like Saudi Arabia without preaching about or demonizing Islam. The setting is one of the reasons that I really wanted to read this novel – that and the synopsis. The synopsis sounds bloody bleeding amazing. And I can tell you on good authority that the synopsis does not lead you astray. I want to write a panegyric for this novel but I will satisfy myself with a garbled review. (Sorry about that.)

It will perhaps take a few pages to get used to the setting, especially if you read books that are almost exclusively set in North America. There is a definite shift in dynamics, there is a sense of the exotic, a “foreign-ness” about the whole setting that is immediately fascinating. Alif is a very compelling character who draws you into his life, into his thoughts, politics, love and family. You can relate to him and empathize with him and that’s a big deal to me because usually male protagonists are not a favourite of mine as…well, I just can’t seem to get into their heads the same way I can with a female MC. What is also very interesting to me is how the love interest in this novel spends the majority of the novel veiled. Yet she does not become a lesser character or anything like that. In fact, she serves as a brilliant foil to Alif – as though the veil gives her the distance that is not visible to Alif – his passion is tempered by her cool logic and vice versa. She is one of the stronger and more intelligent characters in the novel. All the characters in Alif the Unseen are given personalities that are larger than the book they live in. The writing is beautiful and the narrative smooth.

One of my favourite characters is Vikram the Vampire who is actually a Djinn/Jinn/Ifrit. His manner of speaking is amusing and his otherworldliness is excellently portrayed. At the same time, his sincerity in wanting to help Alif gives him a touch of human that makes him utterly irresistible.

The novel presents a compelling mixture of digital gadgetry and supernatural themes. It does not at all shy away from narrating the imbalance between the rich and the poor, the cultural discrimination, the hierarchies. The computer jargon, programmer code-speak reveals the depth of research Wilson must have done for the novel. At the same time, her level of familiarity with Islamic myths, cultures is apparent with the ease with which she weaves it into her grand narrative. Wilson’s juxtaposition of the mundane with the supernatural is excellently written. The novel nests the narrative in current events, showing an alternative reason or more accurately, a hidden perspective that explains the events that took place in the Arab Spring.

Alif the Unseen is a novel that needs to be read widely. It shows people a different side to Islam and Muslims. It shows people a culture rich with stories and traditions that are not entirely and wholly about bloodshed and killing. It shows real people with real problems and not made up terrorists who look for excuses to bomb countries and buildings. Alif the Unseen is a brilliant accomplishment both on the part of the writing and on the part of the storytelling. I recommend it strongly.