I stumbled onto this book almost by accident, proof that the most potent recommendations still come from people we “know,” or at least feel some connection with. The author, Liz Moore, and I have some Boston author friends in common, and as soon as I started reading, the setting felt familiar—even though I’ve never actually been to Dorchester.
(And since this is my first book review in 2017, feel free to let me know how well I follow my own recommendations for writing book reviews.)
The story itself is about a brilliant single father who runs a lab and educates his daughter, Ada, by bringing her to work. My brother worked in a very similar lab in the early 1980s, when the book begins, and even as I devoured the fictional story I was remembering his real life experience. The extra layer kept pulling me away to wonder where fiction and history intersected, but the words on the page kept pulling me back—proof of a subtle but consistent structure that framed what could’ve been a very disjointed tale into a great story.
When David, Ada’s father, loses his brilliance to Alzheimer’s, he leaves behind a history so complicated that it takes Ada the entire novel to work out what really happened before she was born. So on the surface it’s a story about family, and how we build strong connections with those we respect even if we aren’t related by blood.
Underneath, it’s also about science, and education, and how we learn… and about our relationship to our work. About language, and lies, and how to live our best lives even when that doesn’t match convention. There are so many themes, it’s impossible to list them all here.
And yet all these themes tie together neatly in the end. As soon as I finished, the confusing time line (which jumps, jarringly, from the 80s to 2009, about halfway through the book) looked logical and appropriate. And then the epilogue managed to surprise me all over again—even after I’d thought all the surprises were out in the open at last.
As soon as I finished the book, I started reading from the beginning again, unwilling to let it go—and wondering if the language quirks I noticed early on were part of the plan all along. Even though I only reread the first few chapters, it was obvious the second time through how carefully the story had been constructed. There’s a subtle structure holding it all in place, solid and quiet, never interfering with the story line. And unlike many novels these days, the final chapters are just as carefully polished as the beginning ones.
My only complaint were two small quirks in time when I was jerked out of the story: reading along in the moment, the narrator suddenly took a step into the future to look back with perspective on what I was reading as the present. Now that I’ve seen the overall structure, it makes sense that time could be mixed up like this; at the time, on the page, those two moments just seemed like editing mistakes.
Maybe they were mistakes; more likely, they were carefully planned accidents. Part of the beauty of The Unseen World is that it doesn’t try to explain everything in too much detail or tie up anything too neatly. Moore trusts the reader to make the necessary leaps from one fact to another; all she does is quietly provide the springboard. The lack of strict chronology only reinforces the mystery, drawing us to the logical but still surprising conclusion—and still leaving room for a very satisfying “aha!” at the end.
Maybe this story resonated with me because I grew up in a similar time and location… but I think not. Ada’s life is so different from mine, it does require a leap off that springboard to feel such an affinity. Luckily, Moore provides that.
This one is recommended for anyone who enjoys a carefully constructed literary yarn; there’s certain to be a theme here that appeals.