W.W. Norton & Company, July 26, 2016.
Ada was raised by her eccentric scientist father David, who runs an early computer lab in 1980s Boston. His project is the creation of virtual consciousness – training a computer system called ELIXER to respond to human actions and emotions. Ada is homeschooled, and she grows up with David’s colleagues as her companions, especially a woman they call Liston. When David’s mind begins to go, Ada must turn to Liston to help her make her way in the wider world.
David has a degenerative disease and he is rapidly losing his memories. As he becomes less able to function as a guardian to Ada, he is moved into full-time care and Ada moves in with Liston and her family. The intricacies of public school come as a shock to Ada, who has always functioned in an adult world. Her crush on the boy next door is also a major source of confusion for her. Through it all, she continues to communicate with ELIXER – and it seems that both of them, the pre-teen girl and the language processing computer program, are learning to function in the human world at the same time.
With David regressing into his own past, Ada soon discovers that he has many secrets – in fact, he may not be who he has always said he was. Ada has been told that her mother was a surrogate who did not want to be involved in her life, but there may be more to the story. As David becomes less able to communicate, Ada may be losing her chance to find out the truth about her and David’s origins. David has always tried to control every aspect of Ada’s upbringing, and he sometimes sees her as an experimental project, much like ELIXER. David had been using the computer program to understand human mental processes – how we think and feel, and what it is that makes us human. Ironically, it is ELIXER that enables Ada to learn the truth about David’s past.
The Unseen World has a slow pace, and while Ada is busy solving a mystery, the reveal is not the most important part of the novel. Instead, it is more about Ada’s growth outside of her father’s shadow, as seen most clearly in the chapters set in Ada’s future. Ada is precocious and grown up in many ways, but in others, she is young, naïve and even emotionally stunted. The mystery of David’s past drives the plot forward, but Ada’s complexities hold it all together and create depth of character.
The writing is good, but not always original or exciting – the novel overall is perhaps too long and slow. The chapters set in David’s past were not as interesting as the present and future, and I found myself skimming over them, looking for more from Ada. She is a strong, youthful female character, which seems to be more common in literary fiction lately, and it’s a positive trend. The ending of the novel brings everything together in a clean, purposeful way – ELIXER’s human training is complete, and Ada has found her place in the world.
I received this novel from W.W. Norton & Company and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.