Book Review: "The Golem and the Jinni" by Helene Wecker

Monday, February 24, 2014

Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker
Release Date: April 15, 2013
Publisher: Harper
Source: Library

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.

The Golem and the Jinni was one of the first books I had a chance to read in 2014 – I’d heard from a friend that it was a bona fide “Manders read” since it combined folk tales, the immigrant experience in New York City, and magical elements. Considering I am half-Syrian, the daughter of immigrants, and obsessed with all tales both fairy and folk, they were spot on.

The novel tells the story of two magical beings: Chava, a golem (a creature made of mud) and Ahmad, a jinni (or, if you’d like, a genie). The novel is set in immigrant-packed neighborhoods of turn-of-the-century New York City. More specifically, Little Syria, where the Financial District is now, and the Lower East Side.

Chava, the golem, was created by an exacting man in Old World Europe, a man who wanted a woman to his exact specifications. She has to be beautiful, she has to be docile, curious and intelligent. This heady mix produces a woman who only wishes to please. Left rudderless after the death of her “master”/husband Otto, she wanders the city until a kind rabbi takes her in despite the fact that she inherently possesses a destructive nature.

Meanwhile, a tinsmith named Boutros Arbeely is given an intricate copper flask to repair. In his attempts to patch the flask, a magical jinni named Ahmad appears. And he is really cranky. Who can blame him, since he’s trapped in the form of a human being? We all know the limits that are imposed by our state of being. He lives to satisfy his immediate desires, which are often physical.

My favorite parts – although I may be a bit biased, since I am a huge fan of Middle Eastern folk tales -- were the flashbacks of Ahmad's life in the desert, including his run-ins with the Bedouin.

The novel starts off slow, bringing you into the immigrant life of two very distinct – and yet similar – cultures. The turmoil of a city undergoing massive changes affects every character’s life, while the magical elements of the plot bring what may have otherwise been a dull historical story to life. This is also a story about assimilation, self-acceptance, and identity.

"Sometimes men want what they don't have because they don't have it. Even if everyone offered to share, they would only want the share that wasn't theirs.” 
 “A man might desire something for a moment, while a larger part of him rejects it. You’ll need to learn to judge people by their actions, not their thoughts.” 
The development of Chava & Ahmad's relationship was a little lacking to me, but I love that they developed mutual respect and admiration over time, built on their similarities and the sense that they don't belong. 

I loved the setting though, and I felt like I truly was immersed in their world. I was able to suspend my disbelief for some of the more fantastic elements of the storyline, simply becauseit was so beautifully written and tightly plotted. The fact that this was written by a debut author amazes me.

This is one of those books I've been recommending left and right to anyone with a love for fantasy. If you enjoyed Alif The Unseen (reviewed here) or Dreams and Shadows by Robert C. Cargill, you'll love this magical tale.
Four stars.