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Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Unseen World by Liz Moore

W.W. Norton & Co., 464 pages, $26.95

This is not a mystery. Well, it is a mystery, but there’s no crime. Well, there is a crime, sort of. Stretch your definitions for this gem of a book.

Twelve-year-old Ada lives with her dad, David, in Boston. It is the 1980s and Ada is a precocious child who is being raised in her dad’s computer lab. David believes he can teach her just as well as a school, so Ada is more like a grown-up than a child when the story opens. In fact, the story opens with Ada mixing cocktails for her father’s party for the new crop of graduate students interning in the lab. Life is merry and challenging for Ada and David.

There’s not much tension in a happy story, so into this idyllic world a little rain must fall. There is something wrong with David. At first, he appears a little fuzzy at times, staring into the distance at other times. Ada is uncertain about what is happening, but she turns around and becomes the caregiver and assistant to her father.

Ada’s mother was a surrogate, and she is long gone. The closest Ada has to a nurturing female is one of her father’s lab colleagues, Diana Liston, or just “Liston” to all. Liston has four children of her own and even a grandchild. She and her brood live just a few doors down from Ada and David. Liston becomes the shoulder Ada leans on when David weakens further.

It is a by-product of her growing reliance on Liston that results in a startling revelation. There is something wrong with the bona fides of David Sibelius. After years as a graduate student at a Boston college and then as the director of a specialized computer lab there, David’s background suddenly appears murky.

Ada is frantic to find out who her father is. He has given her a floppy disk (remember those) with a clue to his past. But she cannot crack the encryption. Thus begins a long search to give meaning to David’s life. 

Liz Moore has created a story that mostly switches back and forth from the 1980s Boston and its life-changing events, and Ada in 2009 as a no-longer-young coder in the competitive world of technology. The revelations in the end extend past 2009 and neatly tie-up the story.

Moore has created a very likable young girl who awkwardly seeks her place in the world. Moore has also created the Listons, Ada’s vision of what a normal family is like, but they are anything but normal. The adults in the lab are geekily endearing and provide a loving, if helpless, support for Ada. Moore’s mystery reveals a heart-breaking story hidden within a truly creative puzzle.

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