Sometimes I’m a bit slower than the rest of the world to discover great books. The Golem and the Jinni had been on my radar since it was first published and then it even went on to win a Mythopoeic Award (along with many other award nominations), which I follow closely because the nominees are usually books I end up loving. Thanks to the Retellings Reading Challenge I finally picked this one up and it was everything I had hoped.
THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI
by Helene Wecker
Published by: Harper, 2013
Hardcover: 486 pages
Series: The Golem and the Jinni #1
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.
In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava 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, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.
Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel 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.
The story begins with the creation of the Golem, initially thought up to be a companion to a carpenter moving to New York. He wakes up the Golem on the ship (although he wasn’t supposed to), and promptly dies, leaving the Golem without a master, without a purpose, stranded in a new world, with not a single friend to guide her. She may look like a human woman, but she is a newborn Golem with no idea how human society works.
Almost at the same time, Arbeely, a tinsmith in Little Syria, is brought an old copper flask to fix, out of which emerges a Jinni. The Jinni has been imprisoned in the flask for ages, is bound into human form by an iron clasp around his harm, and battles against the loss of his magic, his life in the desert, and the world he has now been thrown into.
You can see, the idea and the characters alone are intriguing enough for a novel. The Golem, later called Chava by a kind rabbi who knows her for what she is and takes her in, and the Jinni, named Ahmad by his now-employer Arbeely, are living through a special kind of hell. Because Chava has no master, whose thoughts she can hear and obey, she now hears everyone’s thoughts, their dreams and desires, their anger and frustration – naturally, that gets overwhelming fast. And as is her nature, she wishes to fulfill those needs, to grant those wishes, not knowing that it’s not always possible. Ahmad, in the meantime, finds some solace in the metalwork he does for Arbeely. With the use of his (quite magical) hands, he forms metal the way no human could. They get by, in a way. But they are both without direction, without purpose.
At first, this book is just magical. Two mythical beings, trying to hide their true selves from humanity, trying to make a living, to find a reason to live in their new society, was just beautiful to read. Once Chava and Ahmad meet and form a tender sort of friendship, things get even better. The dynamic between these two very different beings was bound to be tense. Chava, built to be obedient, to always behave properly, and Ahmad, impulsive like the fire he is made of, thinking more of his own pleasure than other people’s feelings. Don’t expect quippy banter like you’d find in a YA romance novel, but rather deep conversations about important Life Stuff – but with a hint of banter. Everything I like about bickering couples (although Chava and Ahmad are friends, not lovers) is there, it’s just more subtle, and therefore maybe more powerful.
But there is even more to this book, simply on a plot basis. Ahmad does not remember how he came to be bound in his flask. In flashbacks, we find out exactly how that came to be. His life in his glass palace in the desert, his meeting with a group of humans, and ultimately his capture. Chava’s creation is clear from the start, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have repercussions. Her creator, Yehuda Schaalman, meddles in dark forces (otherwise how could he have created a Golem so life-like as to pass for a human woman?) and gets it into his head to search for the power of immortality. The synopsis is wrong, by the way. Chava’s master dies at sea, her creator remains alive and kicking in Poland! Until, that is, he decides to follow his creation to America.
Although I would describe this as a quiet sort of book, a lot of things do happen, and there’s even an epic showdown at the very end. Whether it was descriptions of Chava’s work at the bakery, Ahmad’s romantic escapades, or their nighttime walks together, it always felt like something was going on. So this is the sort of quiet book that doesn’t have loud action on every page but feels like it nonetheless. I can’t even tell you what I loved best about it. The Golem and the Jinni became very dear characters in a short amount of time, but so did the humans that surrounded them. These side characters don’t simply remain on the sidelines, their stories get told too, and they are sometimes more tragic and more beautiful than the Golem’s or the Jinni’s. Helene Wecker has built a whole little world, peopled with believable, sympathetic characters, that I didn’t want to let go of.
And I haven’t even mentioned the setting. We’re at the turn of the century (1890ies-ish) and while Chava is taken into the Jewish community by Rabbi Meyer, Ahmad lives in Little Syria. As I said, some side characters have their story told, but even the ones that don’t help to create a vivid, culturally diverse setting that felt vibrantly alive. Simply reading about neighborly interactions between the habitants of Little Syria brought a smile to my face. They may not be family by blood, but these people look out for each other. Similarly, although culturally different of course, the Jewish community that Chava moves within sticks together and wants the best for its people. Chava’s workplace becomes a whole little family of itself, and Chava, although she is seen as strange by many, is welcomed into it. Again, what a joy to read!
The writing is just exquisite. It isn’t particularly flowery or particularly stark, it’s just always right for the part of the story it’s telling. When things get rushed, the writing adapts, when there’s a quiet character moment, there is more description, when the protagonists experience happiness, the writing feels happier (if that makes sense). When we’re in Chava’s head, different things are in focus than when we’re in Ahmad’s head. I don’t know how to describe it other than always just right. And although I didn’t think this book would have an ending as thrilling as this, even then Wecker managed to seamlessly carry us readers into the action-packed scenes that make up the finale. I may have shed a tear or two…
This book was an absolute pleasure to read, from the very first page to the very last. So you can imagine I am more than thrilled that a sequel of sorts is in the works. Whatever Helene Wecker decides to write next, I’ll be there for it!
MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!