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Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Book Summary

Chava is a Golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in Kabbalistic magic. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.

Struggling to make their way in 1899 New York, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their immigrant neighbors while masking their true selves. Meeting by chance, they become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

Marvelous and compulsively readable, "The Golem and the Jinni" weaves strands of folk mytholog, historical fiction, and magical fable into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale. 

Review

Helene Wecker's debut novel "The Golem and the Jinni" reads like a half-remembered dream, winding through the surreal with an ease and familiarity that startles and suspends. While the focus of the many intertwining plots remains steadily focused on the fantastic and mythological, Wecker's attention to historical and architectural details keeps the reader firmly rooted in a deceptive sense of confirmed truth. 

Although the first half of the novel proves slow and steady as it sets the stage for the collision of worlds, once the Golem and the Jinni meet, as promised by the book jacket, their conversations and arguments as they stroll through the streets of Old New York propel the plot forward. It is the blending of opposite opinions and natures inherent in their friendship that made the story compelling to me, despite the abundance of amoral sorcerers and long-forgotten secrets. 

But like most great and lasting mythological stories, "The Golem and the Jinni" acts as an allegory for the way we live now, reducing complicated realities to their barest, most accessible bones. In this case, the different natures of the Golem and the Jinni very clearly align with and comment on the allotted gender roles of both men and women. The Golem, a creature made of clay and bound to serve a master, is created as a made-to-order wife whose master/husband perishes on the way to America. Freed from that bond, the Golem immediately begins to hear the thoughts and desires of everyone on board the ship. Overwhelmed by the need to please others , the Golem fights against an ingrained belief that she exists simply to serve and fulfill the desires of those around her. On the other hand, the Jinni reveals in his freedom to wander the city at night, confidently driven by his own needs and carelessly clueless about the consequences of his actions. But he, in his own way, remains trapped by what he continually asserts as he asserts, like the Golem, that he cannot change his nature. When read in this light, the novel becomes a parable about navigating cultural and personal expectations in order to maintain a sense of free will and individuality. It frequently demands an answer to the question, do we posses free will or are our actions predetermined by who we are, and the conclusions it reaches provide hopeful and humorous replies. 

Reviewed by Miranda Wojciechowski

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 12/31/2013
Series: P.S.
Pages: 512

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