I bought this novel in May because the cover caught my eye (and the pages are lined blue), and then didn’t even read it until September – I hadn’t heard anything about it when I bought it but over the summer, it started getting quite a bit of favorable buzz. Waiting was such a mistake – this novel was totally amazing, and I have only one small complaint about it, but I’ll get to that later.
The Golem and The Jinni is a fantastical story, a fairy tale of sorts that takes place in turn-of-the-century New York’s Little Syria, but also throughout hundreds of years of history. Like other tales, it deals with themes such as the consequences of greed and selfishness, true love and self sacrifice. But having creatures such as a golem and jinni in New York among immigrant communities in the process of losing touch with old traditions and beliefs as they are assimilated into the melting pot gives this novel a unique spin.
The main characters are, obviously, a golem and a jinni. The female golem, Chava, was created from clay by an unsavory former rabbinical student to serve/be wife to a man en route to New York from Poland. The man dies on the trip and Chava is masterless, a dangerous situation for a golem. A kindly elderly rabbi discovers who and what she is and takes her under his wing to try to guide her and keep her safe. The jinni, Ahmad, springs out of a metal bottle in Arbeely the tinsmith’s shop in Little Syria. Ahmad was enslaved by an unknown evil wizard hundreds of years ago and wears an iron cuff, which keeps him enslaved in human form but allows him to use some of his magical skills, such as creating heat and fire with his hands. He makes an excellent metal worker, and Arbeely takes him in and hides his secret.
As neither Chava nor Ahmad require sleep, they roam the streets of old New York at night and happen upon each other. While the average human would not notice anything unnatural about the golem or the jinni, they each immediately recognize the unnatural in each other. Chava sees that the jinni is made of fire and Ahmad can tell that Chava is made of clay. They form a truly “odd couple.” Ahmad is angered by his loss of independence and guided by his passions. He cares little for the consequences of his actions. Ahmad seems reckless to Chava, who can read others’s thoughts, is a rule follower and tends to be much more practical in facing her life situation. She is happy serving, as it is part of her nature to serve, while Ahmad bristles at servitude.
Ahmad and Chava are surrounded by a caste of characters who have their own tales, each fascinating in its own way. Schaalman, the man who created Chava, is a dark and frightening man. Saleh the ice cream man lives on the periphery of his community and is deemed an oddball deserving some pity, but his past tells a very different story. Sophia Winston is a young woman from a wealthy family whose encounter with Ahmad changes her and turns her life on its head. There are several others as well, and while it might seem in the first half of the book that these various story lines cannot come together, Wecker beautifully weaves them into a marvelous magical story with a big showdown at the end. The Golem and The Jinni would make a great graphic novel in the right hands.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Golem and The Jinni. It’s an impressive and lovely first novel from Helene Wecker and a sweeping tale of old New York and some of the immigrant communities that formed it.