By Venkatesan Ranjana (23A01D)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
In his breakaway novel about an aspiring journalist discovering the secrets of an invisible human race, Fredrik Haren explores humanity’s unwillingness (or perhaps inability) to acknowledge a world beyond our presumed realm of possibility.
The Unvisible opens with Alex Johansen at what seems to be the lowest point in her life. Alone and unsupported given her strained relationships with her family, she’s a medical school drop-out who, at the age of 30, finds herself pursuing a journalism degree. What she’s entirely unaware of is that her research for a seemingly inconsequential story will set her off on a journey that upends almost everything she previously believed to be true about the world and its inhabitants.
Alex discovers the existence of The Unvisible people not because she goes looking for it, but because it finds its way to her doorstep—quite literally, in the form of a Mr Williams knocking incessantly at her apartment door because he saw her post online seeking interviews with children who have imaginary friends.
The Unvisible are a hidden race by virtue of their differing biological makeup, which causes light to bounce off their skin. They have remained hidden throughout the centuries because of the truth of the universe as they see it – kill or be killed. If someone tells the secret, they have signed their own death warrant, because The Unvisible people know that if humans find out about their existence, they will be hunted down and made extinct.
Alex doesn’t have a clue about any of this, of course. Her working theory—just for jokes, for the sake of her assignment and intellectual exploration—is that all children have a universal imaginary world that their imaginary friends inhabit.
We only find out that she never truly believed in this theory, that it was a little too far-fetched for her rational way of thinking, despite her best efforts to open her mind, when she learns from Mr Williams that she was a little too on the nose and struggles to accept her newfound knowledge. All children’s imaginary friends do belong to the same universe: ours, because The Unvisible have assimilated completely unnoticed in our world.
What Haren achieves with his worldbuilding is a space for discussion, in which different insights related to the ideas of knowledge and imagination can be explored. When the concept of imaginary friends, previously innocuous and harmless, unexpectedly creates high stakes, each character is able to offer their unique perspectives on these ideas depending on their position in this conflict between The Unvisible and regular humans.
With the novel delving deeply into the nature of knowledge, morality and responsibility, a strong protagonist would have been an effective vehicle to navigate these themes. However, at first glance, Alex doesn’t seem to be intriguing or charismatic enough to be a compelling guide. Often, she can be insensitive and self-important, and tries to uphold an air of intellectualism at the expense of being likeable.
However, this may be the consequence of a double-edged sword—as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Alex’s strength as a protagonist lies in the way she represents the average human. Her impulsive responses and stubborn behaviour when cast unwittingly into an unfamiliar and threatening situation are in equal parts relatable and frustrating depending on the situation.
Though the reader may lack insight into her motivations at times, and may not always be eager to anticipate her next moves, the way conflict seems to find Alex and how she attempts to manage it prove to be intriguing. And, admittedly, there are little moments sprinkled throughout the book where the reader is charmed by her, for we too might choose to remain intentionally obtuse in her situation.
For instance, when Mr Williams tells her it’s dangerous for her to keep living as though she hasn’t learnt of this secret because The Unvisible constantly watches her, she reacts the same way any one of us might. Despite the evidence presented, and the very real shock and fear she feels, she maintains a state of disbelief:
“Alex surprised herself by reacting as if she really did believe that invisible people sneaked around her home. This annoyed her.”
For the most part, though, it is difficult for the reader to forge an emotional connection with Alex or any of her companions throughout the novel, which might be its biggest let-down. That said, The Unvisible offers several intriguing ideas for the reader to consider, and is worth the read if you want the opportunity to ponder about everyday occurrences that might have greater depth than we might expect.