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The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni

By: Helene Wecker

Release Date: April 23, 2013

Rating: 5 Stars

Summary: A marvelous and absorbing debut novel, an enchanting combination of vivid historical fiction and magical fable about two supernatural creatures in turn-of-the-century immigrant New York.

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:

Every once in a while, a book comes along that just humbles me as a reviewer. How can I explain the rich tapestry of themes, show the meanings and emotions I see, when the brilliant, interweaving threads have left me in a jumble of thoughts? And how do I do it without ruining the effect, when examining the threads and marveling at the skill of the weave forming such an incredible picture is such an integral part of the experience? I don’t know, I probably can’t, but here goes.

Chava is a golem. Ahmad is a jinni. This is not a story of their chance encounter and subsequent whirlwind romance among century ago New York’s immigrant community. No, this is one of those books. The ones that ponder the meaning of life and examine what it means to be human, to have free will and faith and hope, using the eyes of the least human among us to do so. It’s a mix of historical fiction and Gilded Age myth, Jewish mysticism and Arab folklore, combining elements ofFrankenstein and Aladdin in a seamless narrative that’s both timeless and modern, insightful yet moving.

I’ll admit, I didn’t think The Golem and the Jinni would be thatbook when I first started. Helene Wecker’s writing style leans more toward fairy tale than historical, almost as if there’s a surreal quality that makes her book difficult to place in its nineteenth century setting early on, but, as I would later realize, also lends an idealistic, romantic air to a city and a story that very well needed it. The first chapter is probably also the weakest, explaining Chava’s origins in that no nonsense, fairy tale way that leaves very little to the imagination, compounded by a story that’s slow, very slow, if affectionately crafted.

Yet, as the narrative unfolds, as Chava loses her ‘husband’ to appendicitis and finds herself, alone and masterless, in the urban jungle that is New York City even then, it’s obvious that Wecker quickly turns those weaknesses into elements of strength. Chava, desperately trying to pass as human for her own survival, is taken in by the elderly Rabbi Meyer, and although he’s not unkindly towards the golem, the uncertainty, both for him and for her, of whether she can go against her violent nature hangs in the air. And it’s Chava, created to serve the needs of humans yet trying to understand how to behave like one, who forms half the story. There are deep, profound moments about private thoughts and human nature, and whimsical moments with Chava testing the limits of her body, even eating food and trying to figure out where it goes, and the entire effect is that this wonderfully complex, incredibly compelling character slowly emerges, trying to pass for human out of necessity, yes, but also showing what it means to be one, maybe even a bit about the meaning of existence itself. Needless to say, I celebrated her triumphs, felt for her losses, understood her apprehensions, and hoped for her survival, all as she’s trying to find her way in the world.

The other half of the story is Ahmad, a creature very different from, potentially even the opposite, of Chava. Chava is of the earth; Ahmad is a being of fire. Chava is days old, innocent to the world; Ahmad is centuries old, jaded by his imprisonment. Chava doesn’t understand what it means to be human; Ahmad has the wrong ideas. Yet even before they meet, Wecker has created the perfect foil for the golem, a jinni who’s not less than human, but more, someone as wild and eternal as the desert air bound by flesh and blood, now a fraction of who he was. In contrast to the golem’s uncertainty, his is a restless anxiety that chafes at the limits of human freedom, yet I felt his despair at the constraints of humanity as much as I felt Chava’s fear of the limitlessness of humanity. And in a way, their intertwining stories form a reminder, I think, to the rest of us that, like Chava and Ahmad, we’re all trying to find ourselves between these two extremes.

Lest I forget, there is actually a plot. Chava and Ahmad don’t spend the entire book wandering the streets of New York, discussing the human condition while forming the unlikeliest of friendships, even if I guess my review does give that impression. Sure, a lot of it is about fitting in, being human, some of it a celebration of the immigrant experience through culture, faith, community, even the hope of Lady Liberty followed by the realities of working class New York, but connecting Chava and Ahmad’s story is also one Yehudah Schaalman, evil Kabbalist. The suspense of Schaalman’s machinations adds a bit of urgency to a story that otherwise really doesn’t have any – beyond flashbacks from Ahmad’s point of view slowly revealing his past while forming parallels with his present situation, but it’s Schaalman, mostly in the background, ominous and foreboding, who brings Chava and Ahmad’s story ultimately to its conclusion. I’m not entirely satisfied with the (somewhat rushed) ending, particularly with Sophia Winston’s role (though I do see how it mirrors Fadwa’s, a character from Ahmad’s past) and I feel Schaalman as the villain is a weaker aspect of the book than the exploration of human nature, but the epilogue is such a bittersweet parting I still deeply respect what Helene Wecker has done.

In a word, The Golem and the Jinni is a masterful look at the meaning of life through the eyes of two supernatural beings living in nineteenth century New York. Just by their everyday attempts to understand themselves, Chava and Ahmad, their story, says a lot about all of us.


Go to Mitch’s review on Goodreads.

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  1. deniz
    May 15, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    i think this is one of my fave reviews of M.

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