After really enjoying Long Bright River by Liz Moore earlier this year, I decided that I wanted to read some of her other books right away. I remembered hearing good things about The Unseen World when it came out, so that’s where I started. And it was good! But also a little disappointing, but that’s mostly due to my mistaken expectations.
I was somehow under the impression that The Unseen World had some science fiction elements, so I was expecting something like Version Control, where there’s a family drama, but with time travel. But that’s not really how this book works. There’s a little bit of futuristic storytelling toward the end, but this is mostly a straight family drama, where the characters are scientists.
Ada, the main character, is the daughter of David Sibelius, a brilliant computer scientist who runs a lab at MIT. David hired a surrogate to give birth to her, and he’s raised her on his own, not even sending her to school. Instead, she goes to the lab with him and learns from the scientists there, almost becoming one of them, as David has no other family.
Eventually it becomes clear that David has a lot of secrets, but Ada is hesitant to inquire about them. And when he starts to show signs of an early mental decline, he gives her a disc with a code on it that will unlock some sort of message, if she can crack it. But Ada, being 12, is not able to crack the code, and when David’s decline becomes extreme, she has no way to get her questions answered. Plus, she’s occupied with growing up and having to go to school for the first time and live with a new family, now that David can’t care for her.
The bulk of the novel is set in the 1980s, as Ada is growing up, but it sometimes leaps forward to 2009, and we can see that Ada has moved on. She learned some of David’s secrets along the way. Some, such as his sexuality, were simply unknown to her because, given the time when she grew up, it hadn’t occurred to her to think of it. But others were deliberately kept from her, possibly hidden in the code she never cracked.
Despite this book not being quite what I expected and hoped for, I did enjoy it. I thought the disconnect between what Ava could understand as a kid and what the adults around her knew was pretty effective. And I liked that Ava was a jerk a lot of the time, in ways that seemed right for a 12-year-old who’s going through even more nonsense than is typical at that age. Yeah, she’s going to be terrible. And the leaps forward showed that her life was more than the mystery at the core of the book. All of this was pretty effective.
The book started to drag some toward the end, and I became impatient for the full story to be revealed. And when the little bit of futuristic science finally came in, it was sort of anti-climactic. I could see that it was meant to be moving, but it involved a piece of tech that had disappeared from the story for so long that it had ceased to matter much to me. As is sometimes the case with literary novels with science fiction around the edges, I think it would have worked better to commit to the science fiction element and integrate it more into the story all along. Here, it sort of felt tacked on, an afterthought once the moments that mattered had already passed.