“The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.”First line in The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Author: Helene Wecker
Published: April 1st 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Buzzwords: Multi-cultural New York, opposites attract, multiple POVs
Synopsis: Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic, created to be the wife of a man who dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.
Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.
With a title such as “The Golem and the Jinni”, you might think that those two characters were all this book was going to revolve around. I thought so too when I started, but it quickly became clear that this book also functions as a window into a diverse and multi-ethnic New York, more specifically the area known as Little Syria. We follow a wide variety of different characters besides our two main ones. Alternatively, we follow a lot of fates, which in the beginning was a little bit of a problem for me because we had to be introduced to everyone before the story could really start. And they weren’t fleeting introductions. You get everyone’s backstory as soon as they appear in the story, and they were all very interesting. However, after 4 or 5 backstories in a row, it gets a bit tedious. Especially because we hadn’t been introduced to any sort of plot yet. These flashbacks could have been spread out some more.
Despite its rough start, it is worth continuing on. We get to know our two main characters a lot more and experience how they each try to carve out a life for themselves despite their otherworldly natures. Their struggles pose some intriguing questions of what it means to be human and how you live your life to the fullest. While reading, I also couldn’t help but think that this is a book I would recommend to people who like reading about unlikeable characters as main characters. It isn’t usually my thing, and I always wonder if it’s just me who doesn’t like the character or they’re purposefully written like that. However, in this case, I do believe we’re supposed not to outright love the character. He isn’t particularly sympathetic.
My main reason for taking a star off my rating is that I was a little let down by the writing. Not that I’m considering it bad at all, but the book has such a literary fiction feel that it was a bit odd for the writing not to live up to those standards. It’s very straight-forward and non-flowery, which a lot of readers love, but I missed a New York atmosphere, especially when the story is so slow-moving. I also didn’t have that much of a connection with the characters because of this. I mean, they’re all great and interesting, but they aren’t characters I’m going to remember much about in 6 months. Finally, I also thought there were a few instances of the author over-explaining something to make perfectly sure I had understood a reference. It can feel a little annoying to read.
So that’s it for my review of The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Do I recommend it? Yes! If you’re into a slow historical fantasy story in an urban setting with a Middle Eastern focus, I would definitely recommend it. It might have a difficult start, but the ending of this book makes it all worth it. It was so satisfying to see all the little puzzle pieces fit together in the end.
Let me know if you plan to read it, and if you already have, what did you think of it?