The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

This is the sixth book I read for the Once Upon a Time challenge
This fabulous review by Delia made me want to get this book, and I’m glad I did. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker is a unique read. I’ve encountered jinnis (or genies and djinns) quite a few times in books, but never a golem like this one. The only other golems I remember reading of are those from the Discworld series; they have scrolls of instructions in their heads, fiery eyes, are huge, sexless and as you see, look somewhat like clay ogres. —>

Not in this book. The story of the Golem begins on a steamship off to New York. The Golem is a woman made out of clay by a corrupt rabbi who dabbles in dark magic, for a man who would be her husband and master. But on the ship, before the husband can do much other than introduce himself, he dies. Alone in New York city, the Golem, who has been built to be an obedient wife, to fulfill her master’s desires, finds herself swarmed by the wishes of every person on the ship. That is until, a rabbi who recognizes her for what she is, takes her in and teaches her to control her brutal strength and her need to serve others and survive without a master. Becoming her makeshift caretaker, the rabbi names her Chava, meaning life.

Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of Little Syria, a tinsmith named Arbeely accidentally frees a jinni from a copper flask brought to him for repair. The Jinni has been trapped in the body of a man, an unnaturally handsome man with an iron cuff fixed on his wrist, with no memory of how he came to be in the flask and only the vaguest recollection of a wizard who may have, centuries ago, condemned him to this fate. Reluctantly adopting the name Ahmad, the Jinni begins to come to terms with his limiting existence and form. His ability to work with metal, shaping it to his desire with his bare hands leads him to make a deal with Arbeely, and by the time the close knit society of Little Syria meets Ahmad, he plays the role of a Bedouin apprentice taken on by the tinsmith.

The Golem and the Jinni meet by accident, and discover, instantly, each others’ true identities. After the initial fear and discomfort, a mixture of curiousity and loneliness brings them together and they become unlikely friends, exploring New York together, strangely free in the dead of the night. The book is the story of their friendship and how their opposing natures, the Jinni reckless and passionate, the Golem mature and prudent, strike an uncanny balance and helps them understand themselves better. Their conversations and inner struggles, the questions they raise and their almost inevitable arguments resonate with those of ordinary people. The character flaws that we all have are parts of their being, it is the Jinni’s nature to be selfish, and the Golem’s to be submissive, he doesn’t tolerate being tied down and she is afraid to break her careful boundaries.

“What are you?” he asked.
She said nothing, gave no indication she’d understood. 
He tried again: “You’re not human. You’re made of earth.”
At last she spoke. “And you’re made of fire,” she said.

The writing is beautiful, as are the concepts and the working of intriguing mythology into the story. The setting is perfect, late 19th century New York, a city full of strangers with incomprehensibly varying stories, alone in throngs, trying on identities, looking for their true selves and for some semblance of meaning to attach to the randomness of their lives. In this blend of historical fiction and fantasy, along with the adventures of the Golem and the Jinni, we experience seemingly simple lives – from a brazen young girl dealing with a pregnancy to Ice Cream Saleh, a homeless ice cream maker who sees the devil in people’s eyes.

The story is delicate, and slippery; there are many viewpoints and sometimes, it seems haphazard, overly detailed and as if scarcely enough thought went into it; but trudging on through each momentary drabness leads to a seamless conclusion that catches you by surprise. At the very beginning, I thought I could already predict the ending – halfway into the story, it seemed to be heading nowhere – three quarters in, I came close to calling it a bit convoluted – but by the end I was in love. The Golem and the Jinni is an absorbing fusion of ordinary and miraculous. It may not be for everybody, but it is worth a try, at least. 

15 thoughts on “The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker”

  1. I was lucky enough to receive this book for my birthday recently from a lovely friend, and after reading your review, I am even more excited!

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  2. I've seen this book in my library so often. I thought it was no good because I never see it checked out :D. I should not judge so quickly, I think.

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  3. Nishita – I guess the book could sound absurd only from the blurb, and so it has no takers. 😦 But that means you can, right!?

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  4. Harish – Well; if you can accept the fantastical concepts without being cynical, this fantasy is just like any other novel. Otherwise you may find it ridiculous – still, worth a shot! 🙂

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  5. It sounds like a really unusual urban fantasy novel. The only books I've read that feature golems are Mur Lafferty's The Shambling Guide to New York City and R.L. Naquin's Golem in my Glovebox.

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  6. I'm very happy you enjoyed this book too, even if the magic only happened for you at the end. Better late than never. I found the dialogue between the golem and the djinni quite interesting.
    The author mentioned a possible sequel for the book (in a goodreads Q & A), how do you feel about that?

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  7. Vilia – it is! And now that I am totally intrigued by golems, I'll try those books you mentioned. Thanks!

    Delia – It wasn't like the magic happened *only* at the end, but that for me there were some dull moments along the way! I wouldn't say no to a sequel, though. 🙂

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  8. I'm planning to read this book, so I just skimmed your review. I don't read a lot of books with magic realism, but always willing to give something a try.

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  9. Nice review, Priya! I loved your description of how you fell in love with the book gradually. I would love to read those conversations between the golem and the jinni. The real-world analogy of the golem and the djinni is quite fascinating to explore.

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