Alif the Unseen

In Book Reviews on August 14, 2013 at 7:18 am

Alif the UnseenGrove Press 2012

I’m pleased to tell you that I have a book to talk about today. Wooo! It means that I blew off studying last night to finish this book, but considering how tremendously craptacular my day was yesterday, I chose to read instead of study. So there.

Anyway, on to the book.

Nutshell blurb: Alif is a computer geek who is given a mystical book that takes him in between two worlds. He has to fight forces seen and unseen as he tries to get his life back and get the girl.

Overall, I loved this book. I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads. It was enchanting and well worth blowing off studying for.

There were a few things I didn’t like so I’ll start with those.

“These are not the banu adam you’re looking for,” he said.

I’m totally ok with references to other works (as long as they’re nice) and I feel that it’s ok to give djinn the power to perform Jedi mind tricks. However, I feel that if one is going to do that, one should do it with a hint of irony and at least reference the source. When I read that line, I acknowledged that it was there and read on to see if the characters would. One of them giggled, but it was unclear if it was at the Star Wars reference or the silliness of the situation.

This is a small thing, but I am always very aware of the authorial voice as it has the power to rip me out of my immersion. If I think for a moment that the author is taking him/herself too seriously, it jars me right out of the story.

Consider this excerpt:

“…I mean, look at all the eastern writers who’ve written great western literature. Kazuo Ishiguro. You’d never guess that The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go were written by a Japanese guy. But I can’t think of anyone who’s ever done the reverse – any westerner who’s written great eastern literature. Well, maybe if we count Lawrence Durrell – does the Alexandria Quartet qualify as eastern literature?”

“There’s a very simple test,” said Vikram. “Is it about bored, tired people having sex?”

“Yes,” said the convert, surprised.

“Then it’s western.”

This little conversation made me stop reading the book in order to sort out my feelings here. The characters in this exchange are basically saying that people aren’t meant to be adaptable and shift from one culture to another, but that people from the east do it better than people from the west. I read in the front that Ms. Wilson is a westerner, from New Jersey, but she’s writing a book that takes place in the Middle East.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but what is she saying about her own work? Is she being incredibly humble and self-deprecating and including her work into the category of not being adaptable and well-written or is her ego soaring into the heights and she’s trying to let us know that she’s the one western writer who has accomplished what others haven’t? Perhaps this is something that my mind fixated on and that I’ve made something out of nothing. The point is: I stopped reading the book to think about it. 

So, on to the things I loved about it.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that it’s a tricky thing when an author writes a main character who is the opposite sex. It’s very noticeable when it’s wrong, not to mention extremely offensive. There are a few writers whom I have in my sights because of their shocking portrayal of women. I’ve read a few horrible portrayals of men at the hands of female authors as well, so ladies, you aren’t exempt.

In this book, I felt like the author was spot on with the main character, Alif. The mistake that women seem to make when writing men is that they idealise them; they make them either flawless or horribly evil and there doesn’t seem to be much in between. Alif is definitely flawed and not always brave, but he’s loyal and determined to fix his mistakes. I found him to be quite likeable and sympathetic.

My inherent femaleness prevents me from being the best judge of whether or not he’s an authentic character. But I liked him, so that’s good enough for me.

The female characters were interesting as well. My knowledge of Middle Eastern women is pretty much non-existent so I have to believe that Ms. Wilson has done her research in this department. I know that we westerners tend to have a view of Middle Eastern women as being meek, submissive and without voices. That they are forced to cover themselves in veils by domineering men. Living in a multi-cultural city with a huge Middle Eastern population, I’m learning that a lot of what I thought about people from that part of the world is wrong. It was nice to see strong women who weren’t being pushed around by men, but who were culturally different from me. I always seem read about the bad parts of Middle Eastern culture, but rarely have I seen anything that celebrates it.

One thing that I didn’t like was that there is a character in the book, known as ‘the convert’ and that is how she is referred to throughout the book. I was a bit annoyed that she was never given a name. It wouldn’t have been bad if she had been a throw away character that had a small part, but she was in a large part of the book and played a pivotal role.

I like that this book made me think about so many different things. I had actually read a review about it on someone else’s blog and she didn’t like it. I almost took it back to the library (twice) because of the things she said about it. I’m really glad that I didn’t and that I decided to read it because it was different from anything else I’ve ever read.

Have you read this book? If so, please tell me what you thought of it. I would love to know!

  1. I thought I am alone in putting off my studies to read instead. lol

  2. Hi Buffy! I’m sorry you had a terrible day. 😦 But I’m glad you found a great book to help you get through it! 🙂

  3. I really like the concept of the novel so I may have to look into it. That excerpt about eastern writers and western writers would have brought me out of the novel too. I don’t mind if the book is about your opinion and you weave into the story, but if you just throw it in there to get it off you chest, I don’t appreciate it. C.S. Lewis has a bit of a problem with that as well. Excellent review!

    • Thanks! I thought it was a really amazing book and I’m glad that I didn’t take it back to the library without reading it. I haven’t read any C.S. Lewis in ages! I don’t really remember his writing style. I suppose that’s a great temptation as an author. It’s your work so why not write whatever you want? My problem with it is that I hate for people to tell me what to think and I read novels for escapism. I want to be entertained, not beat over the head with something or overwhelmed someone’s ego.

  4. I’ve never even heard of this book! But ever since reading the Kite Runner I’ve had a growing interest in stories set in the Middle East. It’s very interesting that this story about a Middle Eastern is written by a woman of the western world – but then at the end of the day, maybe the greatest challenge isn’t getting the cultures of a different country correct but rather, like you expressed, making the characters authentic. Great post, I’m going to add this to my Book Reads list!

  5. […] Story Time With Buffy posted a great review of Alif the Unseen […]

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