Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker
Genre: Literary Fantasy/Historical Fiction (it’s basically its own category)
Publishing info: April 2013 by Harper
Jukebox: As an homage to Helene Wecker’s fantastical, darkly romantic portrayal of 1899 New York, here is “Gulag Orkestar” by Beirut. The name is a combination of influences, as “Gulag” is the name of the Russian agency in charge of forced labor camps during the Soviet era and “Orkestar” is the Serbian word for orchestra. Beirut’s songs all hold a melting pot of cultures, just as Wecker develops her characters in various ethnic neighborhoods. The clashing of instruments and voices reminds me of the constantly busy New York street life as well as the Golem and Jinni’s lonely night walks–that is, lonely until they meet each other.
The intro is long–skip to 1:01 if it gets too heavy:
Oh, how I love a good worldbuilder. Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is one to savor, guys. And not just for its well-built world, but also for its intriguing premise: A golem and a jinni are stranded in New York and must adapt to a human lifestyle. Both slowly carve a niche in their respective neighborhoods, the golem working as a baker and the jinni a tinsmith. At night, both of them restlessly walk the streets of New York to stave off loneliness and boredom (neither need to sleep). When they encounter each other on one of those walks, their friendship is instant, cemented over the shared experience of being an outsider. When a figure from their past threatens both of them, the Golem and the Jinni invoke both their convoluted past and newly present lives to save each other.
Wecker takes her time introducing us to the two main characters and the separate neighborhoods that are the focus of her world. Furniture maker Otto Rotfeld, desperate to go to America with a wife, asks Yehudah Schaalman, practicer of dark Kabbalistic magic, to create a golem that can pass as a human woman. Her specific traits are included too:
“Give her curiosity,” he told Schaalman. “And intelligence. I can’t stand a silly woman. Oh,” he said, inspiration warming him to his task, “and make her proper. Not…lascivious. A gentleman’s wife.”
When Rotfeld dies from appendicitis on the ship to America, the Golem finds herself without a master, lost and confused. As a creature made to obey other’s desires, she is pushed and pulled in every direction by strangers’ every whim and wish until Rabbi Avram Meyer discovers her on the street, takes her in, and names her Chava (hebrew for “life”). Close by, in Little Syria, tinsmith Boutros Arbeely accidentally releases the Jinni from a copper flask. Imprisoned for the last thousand years, the Jinni has no recollection of how he was trapped. Like Chava, he must learn to live among humans, taking the name Ahmad and working as a metalsmith.
Taking the first third of the book to show us how the Golem is created, where the Jinni is from, and how they learn to survive in a sea of foreign customs is a testament to Wecker’s thoroughness. She builds each character’s story, forging their pathways separately but never too far away from each other, so that when they eventually meet up, the moment is brilliant and magical:
His face–and his hands as well, she saw now–shone with that warm light, like a lamp shaded with gauze…She saw him glance at her, and then look again. Then he too stopped. At that distance she could not feel his curiosity, but his expression made it plain. What, he was thinking, is she?
Two impossible creatures of earth and fire, caution and recklessness, obedience and arrogance, defy all stereotypes and expectations to become friends.
The heaps and heaps of research Wecker must have done about fin-de-siècle New York only adds to the delicious contrast of mythological creatures living in historical neighborhoods. She immerses us in the details of New York’s supportive micro-communities: the shared, claustrophobic tenements of Little Syria, the community of women willing to sit overnight in a dead rabbi’s bedroom to guard his soul, and the glowing warmth of a rowdy dancehall. The solid descriptions of the immigrant population’s cycle of work and entertainment make it possible for Wecker to also describe the more magical parts of city life: The maze of rooftop pathways, filled with prostitutes and informal neighborhood councils around fire barrels, the formidable white mansion housing a reluctant heiress, the Angel of Death statue in Central Park. With this combination of fantasy and history, Wecker’s vision of New York is entirely her own. Wecker’s portrayal is slightly hard to believe, but in the way that we know we are reading a fairy tale and are eager to lose ourselves in the fantasy for a little longer. And never does her ability to whip glittering stories from the air impede the attachment we form with all the characters. Never do we doubt that their stories matter just because they are slightly impossible.
Chava and Ahmad’s stories will always be surreal because of their fantastical origins, but Wecker keeps her two main characters grounded in the very real questions they ask themselves every day: can people change, or are we slaves to our nature? Do our desires and fears govern us wholly and completely? Does free will exist? Their thoughts come uncomfortably close to the questions all of us hesitate to ponder. Wecker embeds in both characters the most elemental of human identities; between them they represent submissiveness, prudence, and above all the longing for independence and purpose. How can we not place a stake in their futures, place a part of our hearts in theirs and feel when they are angry, lonely, or hopeful?
The Golem and the Jinni’s struggle to adjust to the reality of their situation, all the while wishing they could just succumb to their true natures is the true reason to involve ourselves in their entire journey. Take the time to watch as the two try to sustain hope, to find a way out. Revel with them when they realize that the beginning of their way out is finding each other.
Rating: 8 – loved it: would definitely recommend, solid characters, writing, plot; might reread in a couple years