REVIEW: Alif the Unseen – G Willow Wilson

There’s something about knowing the artist. Books come with brief bios allowing us to read the profile of the writer, other works, other life etc. Just reading G.Willow Wilson’s small, brief biography there is something anticipatory about the sprawling, fast-paced debut novel full of ideas she gives; a combination of old-age fantasy, and and unforgiving modern day realism of the cultural revolutions in the Middle East.

Set at the time of the Arab Spring, Alif is a hacktivist with no allegiances to any political ideology, and he is ‘not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it’. Averse to ideology, he is hacking until he finds himself the target of ‘The Hand’, an ambiguous, presumably government censor whose sinister intent, transcends the metaphysical, internet world into the real one. Alif’s real world at least. He is then embroiled in to a catch-me-if-you-can scenario with his veiled, female neighbour Dina. He reflects here about his unrequited love for Intisar, whom gives him the rare book, that becomes a motivator of the plot – the Alf Yeom. It is effectively The Thousand and One Days but a supposed alternative to Scheherazades, The Thousand and One Nights, but conceived by Wilson as a much more powerful entity.

The overhanging irony is that Alif’s virtual power cannot be transmitted to the real world in this cat and mouse game that has the feel of a video game. The book is the force though; as Alif embarks on this journey of the magical and djinn. The question of mystical and real powers, perhaps instigated by the Arab Spring, is provoked further as Alif complies with Vikram the Vampire, a droll, underworld type figure, potentially a nod to the disputably non-religious The Golden Compass (which gets numerous mentions throughout the novel).

As Alif reads the Alf Yeom he comes to understand that the various tales within it are sources of deep, metaphorical knowledge. This then, is the crux of tale as both Alif and the hand want to harness this knowledge. Does a book hold this power? Can such events be captured? Here is Alif and Dina discussing the Golden Compass,

‘This book….is full of pagan images. It’s dangerous’
‘Don’t be ignorant. They’re metaphors. I told you, you wouldn’t understand’.
‘Metaphors are dangerous’.

And this is the precursor for the rest of the novel and the Alf Yeom as this is ultimately a book about the power of words and language. Wilson holds no reservations for genre fiction, and in this case she uses it as a powerful tool, because when you strip away the magic, the descriptions of computer programming, you are left with something like the Alf Yeom’s most wanted entity, a powerful philosophy to be harnessed. Centuries of people have tried to exploit and promote their religion with their texts. It has effectively been a war of words, a war of books, as Dina says ‘I was afraid you’d turn into one of those literary types who say books can change the world when they’re feeling good about themselves and it’s only a book when anybody challenges them. It wasn’t about the book themselves – it was about hypocrisy’. Almost inevitably Dina uses the example of Salman Rushdie’s, The Satanic Verses; A book produced in the West that provoked Islamic outrage, because of, effectively, Rushdie’s use of metaphor. In this age of the internet that Wilson encapsulates, when is a book only a book? And how powerful can a book continue to be?

People have likened Wilson to Neil Gaiman for the blend of philosophy and genre fiction, but there is a hint of Dickens in the way she evokes cities and its people; the wealth divisions as Wilson contrasts the New Quarter part of the City with the Old Quarter and the Empty Quarter; a city in conflict not only now with its people and its government, but also with its history and its future, its old and new culture. One might even go so far to say that magical realists like Garcia Marquez are evident, evoking the scenes in One Hundred Years of Solitude, with the gypsies bringing magic to the town of Macondo, another capital city (we can assume the city in Wilson’s novel is Cairo) in constant revolutions and upheavals, and ultimate events that are more comfortable as fiction than reality.

Alif the Unseen (427 pp) by G.Willow Wilson, is published by Corvus Books and is out in hardback now for £12.99.