Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Unseen World by Liz Moore

As I read the last paragraphs my breath caught in a sob, something between tears and amazement, surprise and the regret of ending. A visceral and wholly unexpected reaction. I had come to inhabit this world and know the Sibelius family, experienced Ada's journey, and now it was over and wrapped up in an ending I had not expected, told by a narrator who knows the Sibelius family as ancestors to be remembered and respected.

The Unseen World is a deeply layered and satisfying novel, a coming-of-age story involving the search for the father, a quest for identity, and a revelation of American society's penchant to fearfully target those who are perceived as different.

Dr. David Sibelius and his daughter Ada have an unusual relationship. David is Ada's entire world: mother, father, and teacher; the employees of his lab at Boston Institute of Technology is their extended family.

David's work is in artificial intelligence and his passion is cryptology. Ada participates in his work by talking to ELIXIR, a 'chatbot' program designed to learn human language through conversation. She pours out her daily life to ELIXIR.

One day David gives her a floppy disk with a cryptographic puzzle to solve in her spare time.

Ada adores her father but at age 12 is curious about the lives of  'normal' families and school children. She spys on the family of David's coworker Diana Liston and her beautiful older son William, while younger son Greg in turn watches Ada.

When Ada turns 13 she learns that her father has Alzheimer's syndrome. She endeavors to manage their life and hide his lapses but within a year his condition becomes obvious. Ada is required to attend public school, and when David is placed in a home she moves in with Liston.

As Liston deals with legal issues pertaining to David's care, his estate, and guardenship of Ada, it is discovered that David Sibelius is not who he said he was. Ada becomes obsessed with finding out her father's true identity and solving the cryptographic puzzle which may hold answers.

But discovering David's real identity still leaves the mystery of 'why'. Years pass until Gregory Liston returns with an insight that may solve the puzzle.

Moore captures adolescent society pitch-perfect, Ada's inner world and her apprisal of teenage machinations are spot on, moving and evocative. Ada is a sympathetic and beautifully drawn character.

The writing is wonderful. With subtle inference the reader is allowed to make connections that are later revealed in full. The backstory is told through jumps in time between the 1980s and 2009 with a few chapters dating to David's early life.

The book is rich with multiple themes: identity, the development of artificial intelligence, societal alienation, the father-daughter relationship, and societal prejudices and pograms against people who are different.

I loved reading this novel.

I received an ARC through Shelf Awareness in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Unseen World
W. W. Norton
$26.95 hard cover
ISBN: 978-0-393-24168-6