‘Alif the Unseen,’ by G. Willow Wilson – NYTimes.com

‘Alif the Unseen,’ by G. Willow Wilson – NYTimes.com.

In her 2010 memoir, “The Butterfly Mosque,” G. Willow Wilson told the story of her conversion to Islam, charting her transformation from child of atheist parents to Boston University-­educated undergraduate to faithful Muslim with an Egyptian husband and an apartment in Cairo. Wilson 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, “Alif the Unseen” — a book that defies easy categorization. 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.