The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker
Published: 2013
Pages: 496
Rating: ****
the golem and the jinni     Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life 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 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 binds him to the physical world.   The Golem and the Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice (from Goodreads).
Thoughts: In 1899, a young woman awakens from a coffin-like box in a boat on the Atlantic on its way to New York City. Chava, as she eventually comes to be called, is a golem, a creature made from clay and twigs that, when brought to life, is at the commend of her ‘master’- whoever the golem was created to serve. Golems appear human-like on the surface but there are important differences; they don’t eat or sleep, they don’t tire, and they are capable of superhuman strength and performing incredible acts of violence and destruction when threatened or in danger, making them very dangerous creatures. Chava was created by an old, poor mystic named Yehuda Schaalman in Poland with the secret knowledge found in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition, on request from Otto Rotfeld, who planes on keeping her as his wife. Schaalman sends Chava off with Otto in a box bound for America, with specific instructions to Otto not to speak the spell to bring her to life until he reaches New York. But when Otto doesn’t listen and brings Chava to life in the belly of the ship they are on and soon dies, she is left alone and adrift, knowing nothing about the world or herself.
     Luckily for Chava, once she lands in New York, she eventually wanders into the Jewish neighborhood on the Lower East Side and her true nature is recognized by a kindhearted, retired rabbi named Avram Meyer. Although he knows the golem is potentially dangerous, he doesn’t have it in himt to speak the spell that would destroy her. Instead, he takes her in, gives her a name, helps her find a job at one of the local bakeries, and helps her to navigate the strange world she has found herself in, a task complicated by the fact that without a master, her instincts are off-center, and she can hear the desires of others as plainly as if they have spoken them aloud.
     Nearby, in the Little Syria neighborhood of Manhattan, another, much older, creature from the Old World tries to adjust to life in turn of the century New York. When Boutros Arbeely, the local tinsmith, sets upon repairing an old family flask for Maryam, the local coffeehouse owner, he accidentally releases a jinni that had been trapped inside for hundreds of years. The jinn are a species of beings made from fire, mostly invisible to humans, who can shape-shift into any form at will. They are flighty creatures, and rarely stay for long in the company of their own kind before leaving to float across the deserts of the Middle East, their native home. The jinni who emerges from Maryam’s flask has no memory of how he got there or how he came to be bound in human form, although he knows that a sorcerer would have had to have been involved. Arbeely agrees to keep the jinni’s secret, gives him the name Ahmad, and takes him on as an apprentice as he learns to adapt in a world thousands of miles and hundreds of years from his own.
     Of course, the golem and the jinni eventually meet and bond. Things happen, both good and bad, and their lives and the lives of their neighbors change and intertwine in unexpected ways as they face a surprising and very real danger.
     I ended up really enjoying this book, even if for the first 30 or 40 pages I was unsure if I would continue with it or not. The Golem and the Jinni is Wecker’s first novel and it does show in some very obvious ways. Firstly, there is quite a lot of ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’; this is largely what made me initially unsure if I wanted to continue with it. There is also a lot of information dumps when new characters are introduced and, frankly, some of the characters were not that fleshed out or even that necessary to the story. For example, besides the fact that Maryam and Sayeed Faddoul own a coffeehouse in Little Syria and Moe and Thea Radzin run an Orthodox bakery, they are basically the same people and the same couple. There is really no real difference between them. The rich Sophia Winston I thought served no purpose or added anything to the story and should have been left out. Mahmoud Saleh, the troubled ice cream maker, while an interesting character, was I felt created to fulfill a specific purpose and then fleshed out from there, and not completely or convincingly enough.
    After the telling and not showing, this lackof fully realized characters is probably the book’s biggest weakness. Besides the golem and the jinni, the other characters never felt quite real to me. They weren’t fleshed out or unique enough to come across as real people which is a shame, because in a book were you have so many weaving storylines and so many different narrative points of view, each character needs to be distinct and have a distinct voice, which I didn’t find here. The jinni and especially the golem thought, were great, whole characters, but the rest never left the page and became living, breathing people. This was also kind of frustrating considering the fact that Wecker spent so much of the book going back in time with different characters and tracing their lives up to the present. It felt to me like a good third of the book was just this backstory which I didn’t think was necessary for a lot of the characters, and for the few that it was necessary for I felt like it could have been done or revealed to us in a different, more concise way.
     The climax of the book also felt a little off; it didn’t seem to match what the tone and feeling of the book had been thus far and the revealing of how the jinni’s past was related to the golem’s I felt was a little bit of a let down and just too convenient. It just didn’t fit to what up to that point was mostly a quiet, slower-moving type of book. I almost felt as if the climax, and the Sophia Winston parts as well, were added after the fact on behest of the publisher to add some romance and action into the story.
     All of that being said- I really liked this book! Once I accepted the book for what it was I fell right into it and couldn’t put it down. This is a pretty slow-moving book– the golem and the jinni don’t even meet for the first time til we are about 200 pages in– so the fact that I read it in three or four days speaks to just how interesting a world Wecker has created here. I thought the golem and the jinni were just great and that Wecker did a great job making it clear just how hard it must be to live in a world where you are so different from everyone around you. I thought she did an especially good job on showing just how boring and restless it was for them during those hours when everyone else was sleeping in their beds and they were stuck with nothing to do for the next ten hours or so.
     I also liked how the relationship between the golem and the jinni developed over time. Just because they share the fact that they are nonhuman did not make them instant friends; they are not only different from everyone else in New York, they are different from each other. The golem is steady, somewhat timid and, true to her nature, wanting to please; the jinni is impulsive, easily given to emotion, full of energy and motion. They have to learn to adjust to one another, which they do only over time. The learn from each other as well; the golem learns to take risks, while the jinni learns to not be so impulsive and comes to be more cognizant of how his actions affect those around him. When the golem meets the jinni, she is just over six months old. When the jinni was trapped in the flask and frozen in time for the next few centuries, he was around 200 years old– not very old for a jinni, but strictly young, either. While the golem experiences life for the first time, the jinni comes to live and approach life in a new way. They compliment and challenge each other in many ways.
     While I was reading The Golem and the Jinni, I began to think of what would happen to the two after the book ended. The jinni is not immortal; he has a few hundred years left, if he manages not to be immersed in water long enough to die (he’s a being made of fire, remember). The golem though is, for all intents and purposes, immortal in her life span. She will only die if someone speaks the words that will turn her back  into a lump of lifeless clay and a few stray sticks. If the golem and the jinni decide to continue on with their life together, what will happen to the golem when the jinni inevitable dies, and she is left alone? Whenever I find myself thinking about characters and what their life will entail after the book while I am still reading it, I know I have chosen a good one. The Golem and the Jinni is not a perfect book, but it is a pretty great one, and one that I am very glad that I finally picked up and read. I even recommended it to one of my sisters shortly after finishing it- something I almost never do! I’m keeping my eye out for Wecker’s next book and will definitely make sure to pick it up- this time not so long after it comes out!
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About hillarypat

I'm a recent college graduate and this is my blog where I talk about whatever happens to be on my mind- mostly books!
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