If you claim you like fantasy but you don't like this book, then what you like is silly wizards and hot werewolf-on-chick action, or else secondary world fantasy with elves and dragons and lost swords and shit, which is all well and good but I'm gonna be totally judgmental about any so-called fantasy fan who doesn't like this book because it's "too long" or too "slow-moving" or whatever stupid reason it failed to score with you. The Golem and the Jinni
is a carefully constructed modern fable written as seriously as any historical literary fiction. The main characters, two creatures right out of Jewish and Arabic myth, blend perfectly into this novel of early 20th century New York. What is more fantastic than that?
It's a rich book, reading at times like one of those sweeping classic character epics like Middlemarch
or Les Miserables
(but not as wordy and with far less infodumping). There are a fairly large number of characters, each with a character arc that runs the length of the book, eventually tying into the resolution.
We start in 1899 in Poland with an unpleasant fellow who has been successful in business but due to being a poorly socialized schmuck, unsuccessful in matrimony. Rather than figuring out how to woo the ladies properly, he gets the bright idea to go to a local rabbi rumored to know dark Kabbalistic magic, and asks him to make him a wife.
Helene Wecker does a wonderful job of describing just the sort of loser who'd buy a RealDoll. Since this is 1899, he buys a golem instead.
Unlike RealDolls, golems can walk, talk, and think. They have their own personalities and desires — a fact upon which much of what follows hinges, as the golem's master-to-be specifies "curiosity" along with "modesty" and "obedience" for his clay bride.
Unfortunately, there is also another little detail from Jewish legends that Helene Wecker weaves skillfully into the story: deep down, golems are murderous creatures who will eventually turn on their masters and have to be destroyed.
Golem legends were of course the precursor to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
. Chava is not nearly so tragic — she awakens in the hold of a ship (her "husband" couldn't wait), but when her "husband" dies, she finds herself alone in New York City — obedient, modest, and curious. She knows what she is, but not what to do with herself. She is constructed such that she can pass as a human, so she manages, awkwardly, to integrate herself into New York's Jewish immigrant community, finding that her tirelessness and precision makes her very good at useful skills like baking and sewing.
Meanwhile, in the Syrian immigrant community, a tinsmith named Boutros Arbeely is brought an old copper flask to repair. He manages to open it and release a jinni who's been trapped in the flask for a thousand years. "Ahmad," as he calls himself, has a very different personality than Chava. He is a creature of fire and caprice, bound to a human form. He's not evil or cruel, but he's used to doing what he pleases without worrying about consequences. His jinni powers make him an able assistant to Boutros Arbeely, but the mundanity of life among humans is soon driving him mad.
Eventually, by chance, the golem and the jinni meet. They are both the ultimate foreigners in a sea of immigrants. Despite being from different worlds, they understand each other better than even the few humans who know their natures can. Their friendship is perfect, awkward, believable, and of course, it gets sorely tested.
As a fantasy novel, The Golem and the Jinni
succeeds because it makes golems and jinni fit in a perfectly believable fashion into the tapestry of early 20th century life. It's not a "secret wizarding world" setting — it's just a world where some of those old legends might actually be true. There aren't vampires and faeries and wizards everywhere, but here and there, if you look for it, there's a bit of magic. The magic isn't the point, though it's much more than just an incidental background detail. The natures of the golem and the jinni and the magic that forms them play critical roles in the climax, but this is a character-driven novel. Chava and Ahmad are both great protagonists. Chava is wise and kind and well-intentioned, but she's not a perfect helpmate — she becomes frustrated and bored with people, and deep in her heart is that murderous golem nature she's not yet even aware of. Ahmad is kind of a jerk — he likes building pretty things, seducing mortal women, and then moving on — but forced to live on the ground among mankind, he's also forced to confront their reactions to his actions. He's still impatient, petty, and arrogant, but he's not without scruples or compassion.
The secondary characters fill in the edges of the story. "Ice Cream Saleh," a one-time learned physician possessed by an evil spirit, cursed to never look another person in the face until he sees a man of flame on the streets of New York City. The kindly Rabbi Meyer, who recognizes Chava for what she is, and his nephew Michael, an apostate Jew who runs a shelter for new immigrants and falls in love with Chava, having no idea what she is. There are many other characters whose stories intersect Chava's and Ahmad's, ending with a confrontation with Chava's creator, who has a connection to the events Ahmad has forgotten that sealed him in his flask a thousand years ago.
This is Helene Wecker's debut novel, but I would never have thought it was a first novel. And unlike so many debut fantasy novels, it's entirely self-contained. Wecker probably could write a sequel, but I think rather than simply continuing the story of Chava and Ahmad, she'd do much better to write another book like
this but with a completely different setting and characters. I will definitely read it!
This is the sort of thick, juicy fantasy that should appeal to all fans of thick juicy fantasies and historical fiction alike. Rich in characters and setting details, judicious about using magic as a plot device, not a character, a mystical force that doesn't need to be meticulously systemitized to make sense. The Golem and the Jinni
is literary fantasy that doesn't fill its pages with unnecessary side trips into some hidden magical world just to detail other creatures; it spends its time on character development and describing a vivid turn-of-the-century New York populated by immigrants of all kinds. My highest recommendation!