Book review: Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson

In her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, American writer G Willow Wilson told the story of her conversion to Islam, charting her transformation from child of atheist parents to faithful Muslim with an Egyptian husband and an apartment in Cairo.

Alif the Unseen

by G Willow Wilson

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Corvus, 250pp, £12.99

She wrote of the contrast between East and West, and of feeling compelled to keep her religious beliefs secret. “In the West,” she observed, “anything that must be hidden is suspect; availability and honesty are interlinked. This clashes irreconcilably with Islam… where the things that are most precious, most perfect and most holy are always hidden: the Kaaba, the faces of prophets and angels, a woman’s body, Heaven.”

It is thus unsurprising that secret identities form the axis of Wilson’s fast-paced, imaginative first novel, a book that defies easy categorisation. Is it literary fiction? A fantasy novel? A dystopian techno-thriller? An exemplar of Islamic mysticism, with ties to the work of the Sufi poets? Wilson seems to delight in establishing, then confounding, any expectations readers may have.

Alif, her hacker protagonist, is a 21st-century cyber-gun-for-hire. He provides technical services to pornographers in Saudi Arabia, Islamic revolutionaries in Turkey and bloggers in Egypt, concealing identities and hiding locations from the authorities in Riyadh, Ankara and Cairo. He doesn’t discriminate politically: “Alif was not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it.” His greatest allegiance, initially, is to the freedom of information.

But Alif lives in a place – known only as “the City” – plagued by significant social ills. It has “one of the most sophisticated digital policing systems in the world, but no proper mail service”; “princes in silver-plated cars,” but “districts with no running water”. This is not a young American novelist’s Orientalist perspective on a foreign other, however – Wilson has lived on and off in Cairo for nearly a decade. Though the City explicitly isn’t Cairo, it also clearly is, with its sweet tea vendors, its streets edged with hibiscus bushes, its insistent sprawl.

Within this megacity, Alif must hide from an authoritarian state that wants to hunt him down and do him harm. This might seem enough to drive a novel. But Wilson adds several layers of complication. Alif has a doomed love affair with an aristocratic woman – a relationship made more difficult by his social status and his mixed Arab-Indian ethnicity. He also ends up in possession of the ‘Alf Yeom’: a text ostensibly dictated by an enslaved demon to a Persian mystic hundreds of years ago, which the state wants because it may (or may not) contain the secret to creating a quantum-bit-powered supercomputer.

When a betrayal reveals Alif’s location, he is taken into custody, beaten and tortured. But at last he is rescued, and as he goes on the run, we are shuttled into the world of the jinn. Wilson’s tone alternates between serious and playful. In her funniest set piece, a shadowy creature called an effrit asks Alif to fix its two-year-old Dell desktop, which has picked up some kind of malware online. Alif is astonished to find internet access in jinn-land. “Cousin,” the effrit says, “we’ve got Wi-Fi.”

For all its playfulness, Alif the Unseen is also at times unexpectedly moving, especially as it detours into questions of faith. In an expansive moment, a secondary character – an imam who like Alif has been tortured by the state – describes a hard-earned revelation: “I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilised in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray… But I did pray, because I am not these things… I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God.”

For those who view American fiction as provincial, or 
dominated by competent but safe work, Wilson’s novel offers a 
resounding, heterodox alternative.


• G Willow Wilson will be at the Edinburgh book festival on Monday 27 August.