A review of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni*
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world.
The Golem and the Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.
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I’ve had this book on my TBR for just over a year having added it 15 Feb 2014. I was intrigued by the synopsis, but it was something no one else I knew had read yet and it felt like I’d be taking bit of a risk on investing myself in a longish story I might not be able to get into. But I’ve been in the mood for a good new audiobook and The Golem and the Jinni had been on my library audiobook wishlist for a while so when an illustrator friend vouched (highly!) for it, I checked it out.
I can now confirm the reluctance was really silly and only served to keep me from a wonderful story that I wish I’d picked up sooner. To tell the truth, I hadn’t actually remembered what the synopsis had said from when I read it last year—just that it sounded really good—which made this full of even more surprises and I’m glad of that too so maybe it’s OK that it took me this long to get around to it..
The storytelling is entrancing. The flawed characters tended to make later situations more meaningful or more frustrating or more hopeless or more joyful. I had pangs of discomfort at the restrictions of tradition and arranged teen marriages and at how silly/naive/easily seduced the women are who fall for the Jinni. Some of the main themes running through the novel are (in no particular order) religion and belief, language and translation, feminist issues, human customs, feeling out of place, curiosity (and its consequences?), loyalty, and free will.
I love their odd circumstance of both the golem and the jinni being knowledgable about certain things, but also being babes in this strange world not knowing any of the basic knowledges humans take from granted every day: customs, myths, daily practices, greetings, ceremony, and so on.
Coming to the story, I think I expected it to be more difficult to get into than it was in an ‘epic fantasy’ kind of way, but it wasn’t at all. It is a story told by examining the scattered pieces of a puzzle—each piece beautiful in its own right. The whole picture changes slightly from what you thought it would be as each new piece is added to the narrative. I think this works well to form a solid story that needs no deus ex machina to solve its problems. The solution lies in the pieces of the puzzle.
An odd thing that I found interesting was that relationships aren’t always explicit. At times I found myself wondering, ‘Is this platonic, romantic, one-sided or opportunistic/business contractual?’ Like in real life, certain action doesn’t always signify full intent or apparently associated emotion. Some relationships feel ambiguous… Specifically, all relationships involving the jinni. I think this is attributed, at least in part, to the fact that his kind live hundreds of years and have chiefly fleeting affairs with each other that don’t mean much. Human ceremony, finality and fidelity is a peculiarity to them. But then some humans are like that too, so maybe that’s just how he rolls.
All that said, I think it would be a mistake going into this thinking you’re going to read a love story. It’s more about friendship and purpose. Both the Golem and Jinni have their dilemmas and, in a world neither of them belongs to, they find some solace in the mere existence of the other. But it’s not all cherries and roses. They’re very opposite people dealing with their problems in very different ways (partly owing to their nature as well as their personalities) and it’s not so easy discerning the ‘right’ way to go about things because there is none.
I need more time to think about everything and to assess how I feel about it all, but I could certainly see this book creeping up onto my (figurative) favourites shelf. This book has crept into my favourites shelf.
I listened to the audiobook from the library, but I am considering buying it so I have a copy of my own to re-listen and never have to give back. If you’re a fan of fantasy or magical realism, I think you might enjoy The Golem and the Jinni.
*It is published under the title “The Golem and the Djinni” in the United Kingdom.
genre: fantasy, magical realism
date read: 30 April 2015
recommend for: fantasy fans, magical realism fans
pros: engrossing story, magical writing, interesting socio-cultural backdrops, great audio performance