Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wicker

I read a lot of books. Very rarely while I’m reading a book do I think to myself, “I’ve never read anything like this before,” but that happened while reading The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.

This debut novel is set in New York in 1899 New York. It revolves around two unlikely characters and their unlikely friendship. In the part of Lower Manhattan known as Little Syria lives a tinsmith named Arbeely. A local woman brings him an old, battered, copper flask. She asks him to knock out the dents and polish it up. As he begins to repair the delicate scrollwork on the flask, a jolt knocks him off his feet, and a naked man appears on his shop floor. The naked man is a Jinni, a creature of fire from the Syrian Desert who has been trapped in the flask for a thousand years. Although released from the flask, an iron bracelet that cannot be removed keeps him from resuming his natural form.

Meanwhile, in a different part of New York, a rabbi encounters a Golem – a woman fashioned of clay in Prussia who travelled to New York with the master who commissioned her but then died on the steamship. She is sentient, but lost, with no master and therefore no purpose.

The author’s prose is often lovely and lyrical. As the steamship carrying the Golem approaches New York, after her master Rotfeld has died on board:

“The deck was crowded with people, and at first the Golem didn’t see what they were waving at. But then, there she was: a gray-green woman standing in the middle of the water, holding a tablet and bearing aloft a torch. Her gaze was unblinking, and she stood so still: was it another golem? Then the distance became clear, and she realized how far away the woman was, and how gigantic. Not alive then; but the blank, smooth eyes nevertheless held a hint of understanding. And those on deck were waving and shouting at her with jubilation, crying even as they smiled. This, too, the Golem thought, was a constructed woman. Whatever she meant to others, she was loved and respected for it. For the first time since Rotfeld’s death, the Golem felt something like hope.” (p. 15)

The author spends considerable time introducing us to the Golem Chava and the Jinni Ahmad, their neighborhoods, and their neighbors. I don’t know much about turn-of-the-century immigrant New York, but the descriptions of the people, their jobs, their homes, and their pastimes rang true. The passages set in Syria and Prussia also felt right. I was very caught up in the characters and the setting.

The plot drags a little after we’ve met both characters but they have not yet met each other. But that soon passes. The two meet by accident late at night and recognize a completely different yet kindred spirit in the other. As I continued to read entranced, I had no idea what would happen next. So often with novels, especially first novels, I am not happy about the ending, but I was very satisfied with how this tale ended.

The cover compares The Golem and the Jinni to The Night Circus, A Discovery of Witches, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I thought it was considerably better than all three.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting. I am so excited about reading this novel. I love to read books that are son unique. I love the writing and her way of introducing her characters, and the time, and place. I just love it, love it.