Reviewed by A.D. Cole
The Golem is a creature made of clay, given life, and bound to a master. Her name is Chava. She was created for a man named Otto Rottfeld to be his wife. On the 1899 passage to New York, her master awakens her only moments before his own death. Now, adrift in an ocean, masterless and bound for an unknown land, Chava must find a way to exist among humans. The challenge is that, in the absence of her master’s voice, she can hear all the needs and desires of mankind and her very nature urges her to answer them.
The Jinni’s journey has been much longer, though he has no memory of it. When a Syrian tinsmith in New York attempts to repair an ancient, copper oil flask, the Jinni is abruptly awakened and spilled into the world. He has no memory save his last…that of a weathered, old man clamping an iron cuff onto his wrist. He knows that it is the cuff that prevents him shifting into his natural form. A creature of fire, trapped in human form, he takes the name Ahmad and forms a partnership with the tinsmith.
The Golem is prudent and careful. She develops a friendship with a Rabbi who sees her for what she is and helps her make a home in a Jewish community in New York. The Jinni is angry at his plight. He tries to fall in line with his new job in the Syrian section of the city, but he doesn’t understand all the rules of society. So at night, he wanders the city, free of societal laws and restraints, something the Golem doesn’t dare dream of doing, despite her innermost desires.
Still, events set in motion over a thousand years ago finally cause their paths to cross. What they find together is the camaraderie of the “other;” the comfort of being with a fellow outsider. And unbeknownst to them, they have a common enemy, an ancient enemy, who is trailing them and closing in fast.
Helene Wecker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is an expert blend of Syrian and Jewish history and mysticism. Through her two creations, we get to experience a diverse view of turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York, a world that is brought vividly to life in a way that is both realistic and awe-inspiring. The story often flashes back to reveal to us what the Jinni has forgotten, giving us a mystical, Arabian tale to follow alongside the current adventures of the Jinni and Golem.
I also enjoyed the growth of the characters. There’s a thematic element, the question of nature versus will, that plays an overt role in the story. The Golem at turns fights against her nature for the betterment of man and then apologizes for the sins of others, forgiving them on the basis that their natures caused their behaviors. She doesn’t extend the same forgiveness to herself, however. On the other hand, the Jinni fights for the freedom of his nature, to go and do without consequences. Why should he keep himself from doing something he wants? His revelation doesn’t come until much later when he finally realizes that not only do his actions affect others, but he indeed cares about the others he affects.
The emotional depth of the characters, the intricate detail of the plot, and the exciting and relatively unexplored subject matter all combine to make this a very readable, thoroughly enjoyable novel. I’m giving it five stars because I think a story like this really transcends genre. It compares to Susanna Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; or even Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. If you liked these, or if you’re in the mood to try something new, read this one. You won’t regret it.
A.D. Cole is a homeschooling mother and aspiring romance novelist. She lives in the Ozark foothills and spends her free time reading, writing, baking and pondering life’s little mysteries.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.