#CBR6 Review #2 – The Golem and the Jinni
Profile: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
After Action Report:
There’s something timelessly optimistic about ‘coming to america’ stories. Even if we intellectually know that immigrants faced abject poverty, incredible discrimination and the lingering shadows of racial tensions held over from wherever they immigrated from, that sense of hope and of starting a new, better life pervades even the most depressing immigration story. Helene Wecker captures this sense and deftly weaves it into a story of magic and creatures not quite human.
The Golem and the Jinni is really a story about culture shock, told from the perspective of two supernatural creatures who couldn’t possibly be any further from the concept of human culture. Chava, a new golem without a master, has no experiences to draw on other than her instinct to help people and her tireless strength. Ahmad, an enslaved Jinni, was sealed in a bottle for hundreds of years, trapped in human form and brought to New York without his knowledge. For him, America is more a prison than a second chance and he must learn to work for a living and be a part of his community.
At the same time, Chava’s creator, Rabbi Schaalman, a questionable Yiddish mystic, follows his creation across the Atlantic in search of immortality. His search will lead him to both golem and jinni even as the two meet each other and find a tiny bit of comfort in each other’s strangeness.
While Schaalman’s appearance provides the meat and potatoes of the plot, by far the best segments of the book belong to Chava and Ahmad, both in their own misadventures and as they learn from each other. Chava’s unnatural innocence and near terror of her own abilities makes a strong contrast to Ahmad’s brash independence and devil-may-care attitude. And while the character tropes are easy to recognize, this particular instance of opposites attracting manages to feel fresh. While we often use the term ‘chemistry’ to describe a blooming relationship, ‘alchemy’ is probably more suited to describe the relationship between a wild spirit of fire and a construct of earth and clay.
Wecker brings a mastery of character to this freshman novel that frequently eludes much more accomplished writers. While both golem and jinni have very basic character archetypes that govern their behavior, they also display convincing departures from those archetypes. It is these departures that make both character seem human; Chava’s wild night out at a dance hall, or inexplicable joy at being in Central Park. Ahmad’s choices near the end of the book that feel like those of a protective father, rather than a headstrong youth desperate for his freedom. I found myself with a great deal of affection for these souls, abandoned but not lost.
Although I have largely avoided talking about the plot, Wecker spins a delightful yarn, equal parts Arabian Night and European folktale. Schaalman’s menacing presence throughout the book is an excellent pressurizing device, creating tension for the reader while the protagonists go about their lives. That pressure builds to a twist reveal that I can honestly say I didn’t see coming, but more importantly, feels true to the traditions Wecker is working with. There are some places where the plot goes off the rails, like a somewhat extraneous side story in which Ahmad seduces a New York heiress. What should have been a simple detour illustrating the jinni’s passion and lack of ‘mortal’ attachment gets tangled into the greater story arc and feels awkward every time it comes up again.
Small scale problems aside, The Golem and the Jinni is a truly magnificent work. I am very excited to see more of Helene Wecker’s skilled eye for character and voice in the coming years. I knew going in that I would probably enjoy The Golem and the Jinni, and it is a rare treat to have your expectations not only met, but exceeded.