G. Willow Wilson is a boundary and border crosser of the rarest variety–a sophisticated political thinker who is also a cracking storyteller. In Alif the Unseen, she gives us a novel whose thriller elements are in perfect equipoise with a deep understanding of the current socio-political ferment in the Middle East.
In an unnamed state at the time of the Arab Spring, Alif, an Arab-Indian hacktivist, manages to stay a step ahead of the state’s increasingly efficacious attempts to capture him. But Alif, whose clients include Islamists, feminists, anarchists, secularists and pornographers (anyone whose online activities might run afoul of the state), is finally undone when his upper-class girlfriend dumps him for the state’s head of security, a shadowy figure known as the “Hand of God”. Alif might feature on the World’s Best Coders list, but when facing a corporeal enemy, his shortcomings are revealed to be as varied as they are plentiful—he lacks resourcefulness and can’t think on his feet, he antagonizes those who could help, and he’s supremely whiny. “I committed a sin by waking up this morning. That is the only way this day could have gone so terribly wrong,” he moans. And he’s a keen proponent of the theory of masculine superiority, noting with surprise at one point that his female companion is “as smart as man.” You don’t want him to be caught be the Hand, but there’s no doubt he deserves a good smackdown.
Fortunately for Alif, his travelling companion Dina (who’s been roped unwilling into his travails) is calm and sensible enough for them to have a fighting chance. Together, they search for a mysterious underworld figure known as Vikram the Vampire, who might be their only hope to escape the Hand.
But Vikram doesn’t appear quite human. Could he be…is he…a jinn? And that parting gift from Alif’s ex-girlfriend, an old manuscript hand lettered in gold ink–might the book be the Alf Yeom, the jinn’s secret book of knowledge?
Spirituality meets science, fantasy meets reality, and East meets West in this wonderfully layered novel that repudiates each one of the above-mentioned binaries. For instance, the jinn’s book is written in a strange language, but then, HTML is pretty opaque too–and the distance between them is revealed to be far less than you might assume. In essence, Alif the Unseen examines how we encode and decode information, acknowledging all the while that we live in a liminal space; each page is charged with Wilson’s awareness of the manifold intersections and dissonances of our modern lives. In particular, Wilson writes about the Middle East with insight, sympathy, and huge panache. There’s a lovely bit of subversion in an episode where Alif first rendezvous with his (to-be) girlfriend at a shop and realizes that “…he envied her the enfolding anonymity of her veil… She had the upper hand. She could observe him, make up her mind about whether he was handsome, assess hid tendency to wear all black and decide whether this offended her or not.” To border-crosser and storyteller, add stereotype-shatterer.
In another wryly self-aware passage, a (white American) convert to Islam questions why eastern writers are able to write great western literature, while the reverse doesn’t hold. Unless Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet might qualify as eastern literature?
There’s a very simple test, replies Vikram the Vampire.““Is [the book] about bored, tired people having sex?”
“Yes,” said the convert, surprised.
“Then it’s western.””
(Author photo from http://gwillowwilson.com/)
Alif the Unseen doesn’t feature a single bored, tired person having sex. Nope. The characters are all ferociously alive, and it’s terrific fun to watch Alif gradually gain common sense and courage while he’s hunted by the Hand. The fast-paced, full-blooded plot bursts with car chases and secret escapes and surprise identities, making for an unputdownable read. Upon finishing this tale, I’d have parted with my money for a grocery list penned by this author, but fortunately, Wilson has a juicy project out soon—she’s the series writer for the new Ms. Marvel superhero comic series featuring a Pakistani-American shapeshifter protagonist, Kamala Khan. Out on Feb. 5, people!
(Kamala Khan the polymorph, standing next to a… hedgehog with Hulk hands?)
This review originally appeared in Montreal Serai magazine.