I started writing a very small review of this book for my end of the month wrap-up a few days ago. But as I wrote, I found I had more to say than would fit into a mini-review. So here’s that more that I have to say.
All the buzz about Alif, the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, heralds it as like a Middle Eastern Harry Potter. I’m not so sure about that. First, this is not, as far as I can tell, being marketed as a young adult novel, though as one reviewer pointed out in The New York Times, it sometimes reads a bit like young adult fiction. The hero, Alif, is older than the characters in Harry Potter, and subsequently, the material is a bit more mature. The essence of the plot finds Alif rejected by Intisar, the love of his life…so far. Alif is a “hacktivist,” a computer geek who works for both Muslim extremists and pro-democracy liberals to keep them safe online from the ever-encroaching reach of the corrupt government in this anonymous Arab country. Alif’s rejection by Intisar sets off a chain of events that quickly come to include the supernatural world of the Arabian Nights, including Vikram the Vampire and other famous djinns.
Like Emily at As the Crowe Flies…and Reads, this book started out very slowly for me. It was only about two-thirds of the way through that it became a little bit more interesting. In my ARC copy of this book, Wilson says she was trying to bring together several different audiences…comic book geeks, literary NPR types and Muslims. Needless to say, these are three very different audiences, and I don’t know if you can write a book that pleases all of those groups without losing something along the way. Alif is high on the action and plot end. There’s a whole lot of running around. I found it low on the characterization end; part of what made it hard to get through was that I didn’t really find myself caring enough about any of the characters, except perhaps for Vikram the Vampire.
Wilson is an American convert to Islam, and a little part of me wishes that I didn’t know this about her. In the novel, there’s a not always so subtle message about the value of things like chastity and the hijab (the various forms of veiling which some Muslim women adopt). Now, I understand that the decision to wear a veil has a wide range of meanings across the Muslim world. For some women, hijab is a way of expressing their national pride or a broader pan-Arab identity. Other women feel the hijab truly protects them from the barrage of sexual harassment which is almost a taken-for-granted aspect of women’s lives in the United States. And of course, hijab is also an expression of deep religious faith.
I felt the tiniest bit of proselytizing in this novel, and here’s where I have to be completely honest; I’m not sure if that annoys me because I find any religious proselytizing in my fiction annoying or because it’s proselytizing for the particular religious tradition of Islam. The answer all seems to hinge on the characters of Dina and Intisar. These two women are sort of held up as the good woman and the bad woman; the chaste and the un-chaste; the humble and the materialistic. Fully admitting to my own biases as a Western woman, that dichotomy makes me a little uncomfortable. I think Wilson wants us to see Dina as a strong, empowered, and incidentally, devout Muslim woman. But I felt she needed to be just a bit fleshier as a character for that, which is especially difficult when we only see her through the eyes of Alif. Also, she spends an awful lot of time crying.
The timing of this book is perfect, coming out in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and ending in a way that now seems somewhat prophetic. It was certainly an interesting read, but the new Harry Potter it is not. Lots of interesting stuff happened in the Harry Potter books, for sure, but they worked for me because I knew Harry and his friends and I cared deeply about them. I don’t feel like Alif quite did that for me, and I wish the novel had.