Genre: Literary Fiction
Published: W. W. Norton Company, July 2016
Rating: 5/5 stars
“If a machine can convincingly imitate humanity—can persuade a human being of its kinship—then what makes it inhuman? What, after all, is human thought but a series of electrical impulses?”
The final two books I read in the month of August had a strange and unexpected overlap, and I ended up adoring both of them. Both The Unseen World and The Museum of You centre around young women in search of answers about the lives of a deceased parent, who they’ve never fully got to know.
In 1980’s Boston, Ada grew up under the care of her eccentric, cognitively brilliant but socially inept father David, and spends most of her childhood in the computer lab where he works on the development of A.I. When he develops early onset dementia, Ada’s left tasked with not just caring for herself and her declining father, but also picking up the pieces of David’s old secret life that are slowly beginning to float to the surface.
I’ve started the Unseen World before, but wasn’t in the right mindspace at the time. I’m glad I waited for a better moment to fully appreciate this gem. This book has so many thematical elements and storylines to unpack, that at first I wasn’t sure where it was going, and how it would be able to tie everything back together. By the end however, every puzzle piece fell into place in one of the best written novels I’ve read in a long time.
There are three main things that make this book brilliant to me. The first is the “family-relationships”, both of the biological- and found- kind. As sad as the story is at times, it’s filled with so much love that it warmed my heart even after breaking it. The second is the depiction of dementia and the way this child finds herself trust into the role of caregiver for her parent. As someone who’s been in that situation, I think this was phenomenally done.
Third is the use of A.I. Don’t worry: this isn’t a sci-fi novel, and the A.I. in question isn’t going to take over the world. It serves more as a digital log of David’s mind, when it was still intact, and a bridge through time for Ada to communicate with him, even though he himself is no longer able to. It’s also a painful reminder to Ada that, although his magnum opus survives, it will never be able to replace what she had with her real father.
The Unseen World is about more than first meets the eye: it’s about humanity, identity, relationships, leaving behind a legacy and much more. Ada, David, Listen and the other characters are some that have left a legacy in my mind, as did the rest of this story. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction, coming of age family stories, good portrayals of degenerative illness or an interesting look into the inside of a genius’s mind.
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