Friday, April 18, 2014
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
[This summary is from Helene Wecker's website. I really liked it, and the summary I wrote was not doing the novel justice. I have a special talent for sucking all of the magic out of a book]
An immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, The Golem and the Jinni tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899. One is a golem, created out of clay to be her master’s wife—but he dies at sea, leaving her disoriented and overwhelmed as their ship arrives in New York Harbor. The other is a jinni, a being of fire, trapped for a thousand years in a copper flask before a tinsmith in Manhattan’s Little Syria releases him.
Each unknown to the other, the Golem and the Jinni explore the strange and altogether human city. Chava, as a kind old rabbi names her, is beset by the desires and wishes of others, which she can feel tugging at her. Ahmad, christened by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, is aggravated by human dullness. Both must work to create places for themselves in this new world, and develop tentative relationships with the people who surround them.
And then, one cold and windy night, their paths happen to meet.
I'm going to be honest: I read this because I thought the cover was pretty. I'm glad I did, though, because I really enjoyed it. When the early reviews started rolling in, I said, "Not another book about a golem..." (because for some reason I think there have been tons of these when really the only one I've read that was remotely close is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay).
Parts of the plot dragged - I knew that Chava and Ahmad would meet (as implied by the title), so the time before that scene felt very long. I also found any reference to Michael Levy boring and slow. I didn't believe that he could have truly overlooked so much of Chava's demeanor and this disbelief made any attempt by the author to convince us otherwise excruciating. I was also bothered by how stricken Michael is when he finds out that Chava is indeed a golem. He has insisted the entire novel that he has no need for religion and mysticism, yet when he finds his dead uncle's notes claiming that Chava is a being part of that religion, he completely falls apart. He didn't resist enough - he wasn't skeptical. I suppose we're meant to assume that Michael never really lost his faith after all - he becomes emotional when prayers are said, he attends religious burial rites for his uncle, etc - but I just don't buy it.
I thought the Rabbi's sudden illness (and subsequent death) was a little forced. I agree, he has to die for the plot to move on, but, perhaps some hints earlier on would have been nice. It felt like his decline happened in the course of an afternoon.
However, the last forty pages of this book were amazing - they completely brought together the entire novel. The whole thing was suddenly believable, mysticism and all. I forgave Michael Levy and the Rabbi for being mostly flat characters, because the relationship between the golem and the jinni had enough emotion, honesty, and dimension to carry them through.
Buy The Golem and the Jinni today in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook format from Amazon.com.
Photo and summary: Harper Perennial