I’ve never read a book quite like this one.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker is almost everything I look for in a book: historical fiction, magic, excellent storytelling, a touch of the mystical, and of course, New York.
I love New York fiction, especially historical fiction, so this book was basically calling my name. It’s about two mythical figures in folklore: a jinni and a golem. A golem is a creature made of clay and animated by Kabbalistic magic to serve a master for the entirety of its existence. A jinni is a creature of fire born in the Syrian desert, and can be known to antagonize or even harm humans, sort of like a fire demon. What happens when these two beings meet in 1899 New York? Wanna find out?
Chava is the golem, a clay woman whose master dies on their sea voyage to New York. She’s cautious, timid, and eager to serve humans because that’s her nature, and her reason for existence. It’s also really dangerous, because another part of a golem’s nature is its innate and latent penchant for violence. When a golem becomes violent it can’t be controlled anymore, and has to be destroyed.
Ahmad is the jinni, who is released from a flask by a tinsmith in Little Syria. He becomes an apprentice to the tinsmith, but is forever trapped in human form by an iron cuff on his wrist, and bound to be a slave to an unknown master a long time ago. He doesn’t really remember how he became trapped, but it was at least a thousand years ago in the Syrian desert.
The one thing I want to note about this book is its beauty. Wecker is a talented writer, and the way she weaves historical settings and makes two mythical creatures appear natural to the tapestry of New York history is seriously impressive.
Madison Square Park sat before them, a dark grove of leafless trees. They crossed into it, and meandered along the empty paths. Even the homeless had left to search out warm doorways and stairwells. Only the Golem and the Jinni were there to take in the quiet.
I think the most interesting part of this book was reading about the two creatures themselves, and what humanity means to two beings who are not human. Chava is the most problematic character; because she was made and not born, and because her nature is to be enslaved, quite happily, to a human, her characterization and personality are extremely complex.
Chava is built to automatically follow the commands of her master, to anticipate his desires, and to fulfill them entirely. That is her purpose. She has also been built to be cautious and meek, as well as intelligent and curious. Her master specifically imbued her with these qualities. Does that mean she’s a robot? Without a master, Chava’s decisions and personality take on new meaning. If she’s made to be a slave, if she’s meant to have certain characteristics, is anything she does or says true to her? Does she have any say in who she is, what she does, and how she feels? The book touches upon these big-boy questions, often when the golem is in conversation with the jinni, who is her extreme opposite.
“I have no idea, [the jinni] said, “how long I was that man’s servant. His slave. I don’t know what he made me do. I might have done terrible things. Perhaps I killed for him. I might have killed my own kind.” There was a tight edge in his voice, painful to hear. “But even worse would be if I did it all gladly. If he robbed me of my will, and turned me against myself. Given the choice, I’d sooner extinguish myself in the ocean.”
Chava is earth, but the jinni Ahmad is a creature of fire, and thus has many of the qualities you’d associate with the element: impulsiveness, a quick temper, arrogance, self-absorption, recklessness, and selfishness. But he’s also capable of change and love. Of the two of them, the jinni is less complex, and seems more human. He’s also slightly less interesting. But it’s the way these two characters interact with each other, their surroundings, and the ensemble cast of vivid characters that propel the story along.
As for the story, this is a plot-heavy book with a reasonably fast pace. I also didn’t know until I had about a hundred pages left that this is only the first book in a trilogy, something that kind of disappointed me. The setup for the sequel made the last hundred pages or so less focused on the characters and more on a huge climax and a cliffhanger, and I tend to like character-driven books more, because they end with some kind of satisfaction. Instead, the intense action took away from the characters’ stories, and it felt a little contrived. Also, the second book doesn’t come out until 2018, which is endlessly frustrating! I’ve always been annoyed with trilogies and series!
So, there’s definite good and bad, and as one notable Goodreads review pointed out, there are no passages in this book that hit that emotional nerve, that a-ha quote that points at some universal truth, that makes you ache and cry and laugh with the characters. As beautifully written as it is, it also feels less passionate than it could have been, like a technically perfect dance without any heart or soul. I find that I like books better even if they have poorer plots or writing, if they manage to tug on those heartstrings. Don’t we all?