Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

What an uncommon and intriguing idea for a novel! A golem—a person made of clay and brought to life by dark Kabbalistic magic—and a jinni—a creature of the Syrian desert made of fire—find each other in 1899 New York City. First-time novelist Helene Wecker conjures a powerful spell with this immigrant tale imbued with Jewish and Arab folklore.

Chava is the golem. Created in Poland to be a man’s wife, she finds herself masterless when the man dies at sea en route to New York. She would not have lasted long alone in the city, but she is discovered by an elderly rabbi who takes her in. He helps her learn how to deal with the incessant needs and emotions she can feel in people when she is near them, and in time, she finds work in a bakery.

Ahmad is the jinni, discovered in a copper flask by a tinsmith in the Little Syria neighborhood of the city. The jinni knows what he is and that he must have been captured by a wizard, but he has no memory of the event, nor is he aware, at first, that 1000 years have passed since he was imprisoned. Like the rabbi with the golem, the tinsmith helps the jinni adjust to life in his new situation. They tell the community that Ahmad is the tinsmith’s new apprentice.

Neither the golem nor the jinni need to sleep, so it is inevitable they should encounter each other in the dark streets of the city one night. They each recognize the other is not human. (“You are made of clay” the jinni says to the golem. “And you are made of fire,” responds the golem.)

Although their natures are opposite—the golem is circumspect, the jinni mercurial—they become friends and spend months exploring New York, both the streets and the rooftops, by foot. When the golem’s creator, a disgraced rabbit obsessed with becoming immortal, is himself drawn to New York, the golem and the jinni find their unlikely friendship, and their very existences, in peril.

In The Goleum and the Jinni, author Helene Wecker brings the disparate elements of her story together into a highly satisfying read. Her characters are thoughtful as well as otherworldly, giving Wecker plenty of opportunity to tackle topics such as free will, love, and community. This she does with a deft hand. The book is lengthy and feels a bit overlong at times, but this is not much of a drawback. Wecker weaves her tapestry of fin de siècle Manhattan and middle-eastern magic so richly, she takes the reader captive.

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