Alif* is a young hacker working from his home in an unidentified Middle Eastern city. His work is highly controversial, providing internet security to prevent illegal websites from being infiltrated and shut down by the State. His clients include all manner of political and religious dissidents. What's more, he is having a secret affair with an aristocratic young woman who is engaged to be married to a powerful State figure. So it's no surprise when the authorities finally track him down and will stop at nothing to catch him. But just before he goes on the run, his lover sends him a mysterious old book containing stories of jinn and folklore. Alif begins to realise that the supernatural world may be closer entwined with his own world than he has ever known, and that it just might hold the key to his escape.
Sounds mad, right? And it is a bit mad, and that was exactly what made me want to read it. And I have to be honest and say that while I was reading this book I didn't entirely adore it. I wasn't gripped. But weeks after finishing it, my mind still keeps going back to Alif The Unseen and musing over the words. It's a book that gives you loads to think about - a definite grower.
Wilson spends much of the book addressing the interplay between religion, the supernatural, and modern culture. She challenges Western stereotypes about life in the Middle East. Alif's city is one where cyber cafés and Western music are as much of a part of daily life as the call to prayer is. At the same time, religion retains its strong influence on the way the city is governed. For example, State security personnel are not permitted to breach the sanctity of a mosque in order to search for a fugitive. All of the main characters follow Islam to some degree but have their own personal interpretations of their beliefs, which makes for some interesting conversations, particularly between Alif and his local Imam. There's some good stuff about marrying theoretical computer science and coding with philosophical concepts and metaphor, which I have to admit went over my head a little and verged on implausible in the context of the plot, but was really interesting and unique to think about. You don't particularly need any background knowledge of either computing or Islam to fully understand the novel but I bet it would enhance the reading experience to no end.
I also found the portrayal of women in this novel to be pretty interesting. The main female character, Dina, is Alif's childhood friend and neighbour. She chooses to veil her face for religious reasons, much to the disgust of Alif and her parents who don't respect her choice, murmuring about oppression and the prejudices of the various Arab subcultures in their community. She is extremely devout, she is modest, and at the same time she is independent and intelligent, getting Alif and herself out of sticky situations thanks to her quick thinking. We also encounter an American academic who has converted to Islam and provides yet another perspective. Sure, it's not perfect - Dina certainly has one or two damsel-in-distress moments and acts as a token love interest, and I'm pretty sure the book doesn't pass the Bechdel test, more's the pity - but it certainly made me ponder the common Western stereotypes that prevail towards Muslim women and whether I'm guilty of any such lazy prejudice.
This is making Alif The Unseen sound pretty heavy-going, which it isn't. There's a lot of humour and fun there too, particularly when the group venture into the supernatural world of the jinn. It reminded me of Rivers Of London in the way that fantastical beings live so closely alongside our normal world and all have such lively characters.
All in all, Alif The Unseen is such an incredibly ambitious novel. I can certainly forgive it for being a bit clunky and not 100% cohesive. It's one of the first books in ages that I want to take the time to re-read soon. Both fun and thought-provoking.