I have been busy reading. I don’t normally read a book in this genre, but from the first page I was caught in the story’s grip. I finished a 496-page book…The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. It was quite the extraordinary effort by her, and for a first novel, I thought it was extremely well-written.
It is a story, as the title states, about a golem and a jinni. It is a combination of historical fiction, fantasy, superstition, and so much more.
The golem is a clay creature in female form that was created for a man who is a withdrawn person, and can not seem to find a wife, a woman who wants to be married to him. He decides to have her created to specific specifications. He takes the golem with him, when he departs for New York City from Europe. Her “master” dies on the ship, and she disembarks in New York City. She meets a Rabbi, who takes her in, knowing she is of the earth. She begins her “life” with Jewish roots.
The Jinni has managed to escape out of the lamp he has been held in for over one thousand years, due to a tinsmith breaking the seal. He is a jinni that has been imprisoned within the walls of the lamp, and comes out in human form in New York City. His origins are Arabian Syria, and through fire as his force, he must stay away from water, especially rivers and rain.
The two of them eventually meet, and begin an unusual friendship. Their relationship develops, each one a stranger, and immigrant in a new land. Each one not actually human, yet each one takes on human qualities. The story envelops Arabs, Muslims and Jews within the pages, not in a conflicting manner, but in acceptance of each other and their cultures. The communities of Little Syria and the Jewish sector, blend together, and the reader is given scenes of life, not only in the two communities within New York City, but of 1898 New York City just before the turn of the century. The writing by Wecker is fantastic.
The fact that the Golem (Chava), and the Jinni (Ahmad) are basically immigrants learning to assimilate and cope with every day living in realms they don’t understand is not a new concept, in reality. But, within the fact that they are not human, not only do they have to try to blend in within their environment, but also have to try to appear to be human, with human mannerisms, actions, and qualities. Chava is bright and clever, always aware and cognizant. Jinni is mocking and arrogant, yet still trapped in human form.
Chava is constantly watching and learning, trying to adapt. She is sensitive, and trusting, trying to find independence. Within that sphere, she must always remind herself not to show her strength. Jinni must be cautious of his warmth, his sexual desires, his inability to feel emotions or understand others. He is self-absorbed.
There are other characters that play into the story line. From the Rabbi to the bakery owners, the tinsmith who lets Ahmad work in his shop to the ice cream man, people come and go within the pages, but all are integral to the story line. Cultural barriers are opened, and acceptance is gained by one community for the other. There are back stories, as the novel jumps back and forward in time, but not in a manner that the reader can’t keep up with. The back stories are as important as the current time period.
Wecker is masterful in her descriptions of New York City at the end of the 19th century. Her ability to illuminate the streets filled with carts, horses, trolleys, architecture, people from all over the world, shops, and daily life is impeccable. She captures the very essence of olde New York City. The reader can visualize her portraits, inhale the aromas, hear the noises, and feel the essence of city life on a daily basis. Her minute details breathe life into each sentence, each page.
The supernatural, magical creatures, superstitions, Kabbalah all combine in one incredible novel. Some of it lends the reader to suspend their non-belief, but that is the beauty of the story that Weckler has written. One can become so wrapped up in the characters and their journeys, that they can feel they are a part of the whole.
The human condition and efforts to survive in an unknown land is brilliantly brought to the forefront with sensitivity and clarity. Many questions were brought to my mind: Is it worth the effort to try to overcome the challenges of cultural mores and realities? What is freedom? What is enslavement? Are we really slaves to our environment, or a slave to a former world? Are we product of old and new? What is assimilation, and does it require mimicking those around us, or letting others manipulate us into what they want us to be? These and so many more questions were food for thought.
Within the pages of this fantasy and adventure story we see life through the eyes of those who are trying to find themselves within a strange, and sometimes hostile environment. Life is depicted in all of its beauty and ugliness, with the positives and the negatives. New York City is illuminated through vivid word-imagery, people and their personalities are excellently depicted. Cultural mores are drawn together, showing the similarities within both the Syrian community and the Jewish community. Each culture wants the same for their own kind. The human situation and all it encompasses are woven within the tapestry of the pages within The Golem and the Jinni.
I enjoyed each page, each line, and didn’t want the book to end. That is saying a lot, from a reader who is not really one who normally reads a book in this genre. Helene Wecker is masterful, in my opinion, in her ability to hold my attention. I recommend The Golem and the Jinni!