Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
The Golem and the Jinni was certainly one of the buzziest books of 2013. Written by a debut author, this book started showing up everywhere! For myself, I sat up and took notice as soon as I read the title (and saw that gorgeous cover) — then paid even more attention as the initial reviews rolled in, all marveling over the originality of the story and the beauty of the writing.
Well, guess what? All that praise? Totally justified.
I finally read The Golem and the Jinni as one of my last books in 2013 — and wanted to kick myself for waiting so long to read it!
In brief, The Golem and the Jinni is the story of two mythical beings from two very different cultures: The Golem is a creature from Jewish mysticism, a human-like creature of clay whose purpose is to obey and protect its master. (Most famously, there is the legend of a golem created by the Rabbi of Prague in the 16th century to defend the Jewish ghetto against attack. Once the golem’s mission was completed, it returned to inanimate clay.) The Jinni is a legendary being from Arabian tales, a desert spirit of fire with the ability to take on different forms — but don’t confuse the Jinni in The Golem and the Jinni with the big blue guy from Disney’s Aladdin!
In this lovely novel, a female golem and a male jinni — both with human appearance — find themselves, accidentally and unwillingly, in New York in 1899, and must find a way to blend in, survive, and adapt to living among humans. Chava, the golem, is taken in by a kindly rabbi and finds a home in the Jewish Lower East Side, by all appearances a modest young widow who keeps to herself while working in a bakery and taking in mending. Ahmad, the jinni, can work wonders with metals of all kinds and finds refuge and employment with a tinsmith in the Little Syria neighborhood, but is filled with rage at his lack of freedom and spends each night wandering the city. When Chava and Ahmad cross paths, they recognize in each other a kindred spirit, and form a bond that’s full of disagreement and polarity, but also a deep understanding of what it means to be trapped, to hide one’s true nature, and to long for freedom and purpose.
I loved everything about The Golem and the Jinni. The writing here is lovely, conveying the feeling of listening to a master storyteller. There’s a sense of mythology and otherworldly power pervading the story, and yet it is most firmly rooted in the day-to-day realities of life in the early days of the 20th century. New York comes alive within the pages, filled with immigrant communities, ethnic loyalties, the sights and smells of a cramped city without modern conveniences; yet it is also a city striving to improve itself and modernize from moment to moment. From the Bowery to Central Park, the characters explore the nooks and crannies of Manhattan, its beauty and its ugliness, as well as the people who call it home.
We come to care deeply about Chava and Ahmad, and yet can also understand the sentiments and superstitions of the people who meet them and, without understanding why, sense innately that these two are different and perhaps dangerous. Embedded within the story is an examination of what it means to have a purpose in life, and whether anyone can truly overcome his or her essential nature and make themselves over into someone new. As Chava and Ahmad struggle to change their destinies and find freedom, they confront their own limitations and must either find a way to start fresh — or admit defeat, and allow themselves to be destroyed.
There are small moments of great beauty — for example, Ahmad’s ability to create delicate silver and gold animals using only his hands — as well as excitement, danger, and even peace. The scenes of bustling New York are set in contrast with Ahmad’s memories of his lost life in the desert, pursuing a Bedouin encampment and ultimately falling victim to its vengeance. In The Golem and the Jinni, the author skillfully weaves together a modern-day tale with something out of legend, and the blending is masterfully done.
I simply can’t recommend this book highly enough! Start to finish, The Golem and the Jinni is captivating and magical, and an absolute treat to read.
About the Author:
Helene Wecker grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, a small town north of Chicago, and received her Bachelor’s in English from Carleton College in Minnesota. After graduating, she worked a number of marketing and communications jobs in Minneapolis and Seattle before deciding to return to her first love, fiction writing. Accordingly, she moved to New York to pursue a Master’s in fiction at Columbia University.
She now lives near San Francisco with her husband and daughter. The Golem and the Jinni is her first novel.
Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours.