Review: The Golem and the Jinni

ImageTitle: The Golem and the Jinni

Author: Helene Wecker

Rating: ★★★★1/2

Provided Synopsis: An immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, Helene Wecker’s dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master-the husband who commissioned her-dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free-an unbreakable band of iron around his wrist binds him to the physical world.

Overwhelmed by the incessant longing and fears of the humans around her, the cautious and tentative Chava-imbued with extraordinary physical strength-fears losing control and inflicting harm. Baptized by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, the handsome and capricious Ahmad-an entity of inquisitive intelligence and carefree pleasure-chafes at monotony and human dullness. Like their immigrant neighbors, the Golem and the Jinni struggle to make their way in this strange new place while masking the supernatural origins that could destroy them.

Surrounding them is a colorful cast of supporting characters who inhabit the immigrant communities in lower Manhattan at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century: the café owner Maryam Faddoul, a pillar of wisdom and support for her Syrian neighbors; the solitary Ice Cream Saleh, a damaged man cursed by tragedy; the kind and caring Rabbi Meyer and his beleaguered nephew Michael, whose Sheltering House receives newly arrived Jewish immigrants; the adventurous young socialite Sophia Winston; and the mysterious Joseph Schall, a dangerous man driven by ferocious ambition and esoteric wisdom.

Meeting by chance, Chava and Ahmad become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing nature-until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

Marvelous and compulsively readable, The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

Review: Magical would be the best way to describe this novel. By blending a historical fiction setting of New York City in 1899 with two characters born out of fables, Helene Wecker has crafted a unique story. This is why I read books! She transported me!

Like all fine storytelling this one is slow-burning. You learn the origins of a Golem and how she wound up in America without a master to tether her down; then you meet a Jinni from a copper flask, who has been trapped for hundreds of years with no memory of how he came to have a master. Both creatures must reconcile their new existence in a strange world. They must try to pass as humans, and both go about a different path to try. But it is not easy and their restlessness eventually leads them to come across one another.

There are other characters, of course, that the reader learns of as they come into contact with the protagonists. At first I wondered why the story insisted upon returning to these characters, but all eventually come to play a role in the accumulation to the climax and its resolution. This story read like a magical fable that could, and most likely should, be spoken and passed down for generations and generations. I can only hope to be able to write something as special as this one day…


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