The Unseen World by Liz Moore—available in stores today—is another case of a fantastic description that, when I started actually reading the book, wasn’t really what I was expecting. It wasn’t entirely a bad thing, as the novel had strong thematic resonance, but it did take me a while to get invested in it—more so because of its pacing and organization. Weaving the early days of artificial intelligence development and computer programming with a deeply emotional personal tale, The Unseen World is a layered glimpse into the past while also looking forward to the possibilities of the future.
Ada Sibelius has lived an unusual life for a fourteen-year-old girl in 1980s Boston. Raised by her single father, she has spent much of her life with him at the computer sciences lab he directs, learning what he taught her and contributing to the lab group on their developing projects despite her youth. But when her father’s health begins to cause problems and confusion, Ada is forced into a more traditional school (a private Catholic school as opposed to public school, but a school where she must interact with her peers in age) where she must face the fact that she isn’t familiar with the social morays of being a teenager. As her father’s health and mental state continue to deteriorate, Ada learns that he had more secrets than anybody knew—secrets that cause Ada to question her own reality and identity as she struggles to unearth the truth.
As I started making my way through the book, the pacing was killing me. It is broken down in a confusingly laborious manner: sections that jump back and forth in time, unlabeled/unmarked chapter divisions, divisions within the chapters that are generally very short and sometimes break in places where the scene continues without a noticeable shift in focus or narration to indicate why a break was placed there. Upon reaching the conclusion of the novel—literally the last few pages of the epilogue—information helps shed light on why the book might be broken down in the manner it is, but that doesn’t make it any easier to actually get through as a reader. Conceptually it kind of works (but is also rather trope-ish and a little gimmicky) but the execution—particularly the jumping around in time—undermines the narrative tension rather than naturally building it.
If you can get beyond the first half of the book, the story at the heart of the novel begins to unfold in wonderfully intricate ways. It all just takes a little too long and in drawing everything out so much, it drains the text of energy. Dealing with computer program coding, there are other coded puzzles in the story that go unsolved for large chunks of the book. Watching the pieces finally fall into place and learning the truth Ada has sought for so much of the book isn’t as satisfying as I had hoped given how long it took to get it. Her father’s story itself is remarkable but its presentation leaves much to be desired. Jumping back and forth in time, trying to force elements into what appears to be an uncomfortable parallel structure—perhaps intended to encourage a building of tension moving towards the ultimate reveal—actually undermines it on both sides as the 1980s portion of the story contains most of the emotional drive while the 2009 portion, in many ways, spoils any tension built in the 1980s portion because it gives away too much of what happened in the 1980s that those portions of the story haven’t arrived at yet. Moments that should have packed a tremendous emotional punch ended up being surprisingly glossed over; subplots—mostly those related to Ada’s time in school and her struggles making friends—feel abandoned or at least narratively incomplete.
Basically, there’s a little too much thought and effort put into the novel’s overall structural concept and not enough put into elements around the reader’s experience (keeping the narrative tight and concise, pacing, following through successfully on the promise of subplots). Overall the book is denser than it needs to be.
The Unseen World is available in stores as of today, July 26, 2016.