The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Last month I posted the trailer for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker along with the publisher’s blurb:

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 to 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.

I noted at the time that it was “definitely my type of story.” After posting I was able to get my hands on a copy of the book and in this case the trailer and the blurb led me true.  It was my kind of book and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

A mix of history, romance, fantasy, folklore and psychological/philosophical musings it was both entertaining and thought-provoking. The story starts slowly by introducing us to the main characters and settings (primarily turn-of-the-century Manhattan) but these characters and settings are so engaging that you don’t mind the slow pace, or at least I didn’t, but settle in to enjoy the process and explore this fictional world.

But danger is always lurking for both the Golem and the Jinni and the tension begins to grow, the plot lines start to mingle and tangle and by the end you are feverishly reading to find out what happens. As you do so you find the questions about destiny and free will, about choice and character, intriguing and even challenging.

I am not usually a big fan of historical fiction but in this case the fantasy and folklore elements combined with the history to form a compelling blend.  Wecker crafts such great characters – and not just the jinni and the golem.  She really offers a wonderful cross-section of people and ties them all into the story. From the Rabbi that takes the golem in and the tinsmith who does the same for the jinni, to the wealthy heiress who has a heated tryst with the jinni, the doctor turned ice cream man, the golem’s co-worker and a number of additional side characters, Wecker creates neighborhoods and populates the city with character in doing so. This doesn’t even count the descriptions of the city itself – its buildings, neighborhoods and parks.

To go with this history you have the fantastical and the folk-lore of the golem and jinni. Wecker uses this background to craft their personality and tell their story.  Which also brings in the renegade rabbi Shaalman who kicks off the story and then returns for a central role.  Wecker uses these backstories to build tension as the jinni tries to remember how he found himself in that bottle and the golem struggles with her nature and the constant stress of “living a lie.” She manages to weave all this complexity without losing the pace or story.

And tied up in this is some musing on identity and fate.  How much of one’s life might be determined by things outside your control?  How is character formed and how does it relate to the choices we make? Just how much free will do we really have? And in light of this how much moral responsibility do we bear for our choices? Should we push against social constructs or seek to live within them?

But because the characters are so well drawn and the reader is so engaged with their lives the philosophical musings can add flavor with out distracting. We can put ourselves in their shoes and think about what choices we would make. We can think about our own lives and times when we felt like fate was something that pushed us along rather than about real choices and the freedom to be who we wanted to be.  But in the end we really just want to find out what happens to the characters we have come to care about.

As other reviewers have noted, Wecker gets a little carried away with the drama as she brings the novel to a close. The fantastical elements seem to overwhelm the story for a moment. And the rootedness is lost briefly. But this is a minor distraction at the most.

This is really a wonderful story and a great read; one that you can soak up and enjoy.  An amazing accomplishment for any novel yet alone a debut one. Highly recommended.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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