Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Started: 12 May 2013
Finished: 23 May 2013
Where did it come from? From HarperCollins (via TLC Book Tours) for review.
Why do I have it? Historical fiction and fantasy are two of my favorite genres.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 31 March 2013.
Two creatures out of
myth have to make their way in
immigrant New York.
Summary: A wealthy Jewish man pays a sorcerer to construct him a female golem for a wife. Crafted of clay, immensely strong, and with an instictive desire to fulfill her master’s commands – even his unconscious wishes – she is left lost and unmoored when her master awakens her on the ship to America, and then dies shortly thereafter. She finds her way to the Jewish community in New York, where she is taken in by a Rabbi who recognizes her for what she is, and seeks to teach her how to make her way in a world full of humans, all with desires she’s driven to fill, without giving herself away. Meanwhile, in another neighborhood, a Syrian tinsmith who is given an heirloom flask to fix is surprised (to say the least) when the flask contains not oil, but rather a jinni. The jinni is bound to human form by the iron cuff on his wrist, but he has no memory of how he was trapped in the flask, or of the thousand years that have passed in the interim. He is a creature used to following his every whim, now confined to mortal flesh and the trivial toils of everyday life. These two creatures must each try to make their way through a world that is not their own, struggling to deny their own power, to fit in and keep their secrets. And when they encounter each other, they find those same secrets even harder to keep.
Review: My favorite thing about this book was how seamlessly Wecker blended two very disparate mythologies into a single coherent story. The golem and the jinni are such wonderful counterparts to each other – he’s a creature of fire, she of earth; she’s driven to fulfill the desires of others, he’s used thinking only of himself and acting on his every whim; he is thousands of years old, she was created only a few months ago; she is designed to have a single master but lacks one, he is imprisoned and bound against his will by a master he can’t even remember – that I’m a little surprised no one has put the two creatures in the same story before. (Or at least, not to my knowledge; if there is such a story out there I’d be interested to read it.) Chava and Avram (for such are the human names chosen by/assigned to the golem and the jinni, respectively) complement and play off each other so well, that their scenes together were some of my favorite in the book.
I also really enjoyed Wecker’s version of Gilded Age New York City. Typically, I’ve found that most books set in NYC either aren’t particularly evocative of the place and time, or else rely overmuch on reader’s familiarity with the city to draw their setting. Wecker falls somewhat into this later category – descriptions of the jinni’s nighttime rambles tended to toss out names of streets and neighborhood that weren’t that helpful to me without a map – but for the most part, she does manage to capture the feeling of the place and the time quite effectively… in particular, the differences between the two immigrant neighborhoods, and between them and the wealthier parts of town. I think the setting also contributed to my enjoyment of the characters: having creatures out of mythology brought to a not-quite-modern New York was a great contrast while still being oddly believable.
In general, Wecker’s writing is smooth and easy to read. This book doesn’t have the fastest-moving plot I ever read; the majority of the book is the two characters struggling to adjust themselves to human life, while the real danger/conflict doesn’t crop up until relatively near the end. There were also some elements that I thought could have been elaborated more than they were. For example, the contrast between the Golem and the Jinni never really manifested itself in terms of a contrast between the religious traditions of which they were a part. Religion gets mentioned, of course, and plays a role in the lives of some of the secondary characters, but I was expecting it to be a bigger deal than it wound up being.
On the whole, though, I really enjoyed this book. The two main characters are well-crafted and highly memorable, and made for an interesting reading experience. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: The presence of supernatural creatures means it’s fantasy, but I thought it is much more closely aligned to the historical fiction side of its heritage. It reminded me in places of both The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Everything is Illuminated, even though it’s not particularly similar in story or prose style to either. (Maybe it’s just the Jewish thing?) I think it’d be enjoyed by fans of either genre, or readers of contemporary fiction that are willing to suspend their disbelief.
First Line: The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- Location 352: “Arbeely was a Maronite Catholic who’d grown up in the bustling village of Zahleh, which lay in the valley below Mount Lebanon.” – A member of a Christian Uniat church, chiefly of Lebanon, the liturgy of which is written in Syriac.
- Location 669: “She saw in their minds the meals they were about to tuck into, the thick dark bread spread with schmaltz, the herring and pickles, the mugs of thin beer.” – Liquid fat, especially chicken fat.
- Location 1213: “If a businessman was drinking doffee and smoking a narghile, and bemoaning the smallness of his shop – business was booming, if only he had space for larger orders! – Maryam would appear at his side, refill his cup with an easy tilt of her wrist, and say, “You should ask George Shalhoub if you can take over his lease when he moves away.”” – another name for hookah.
- Location 2274: “Young men and women courted each other slyly in line, casually mentioning a dance that a union group or landsmanschaft was putting on: if you aren’t doing anything maybe you can stop by; well, I’m awfully busy tonight, Frankie, but then maybe I will.” – a Jewish benefit or charitable aid society of immigrants from the same town or region.
- Location 2330: “His yeshiva had been home to an ancient Kabbalist, half-mad and steeped in lore.” – an institution in classical Judaism for the study of its traditional, central texts.
- Location 3571: “Afterward, at a dinner organized by the ladies of the church, he sat at a long table among the other unmarried men, and ate tabouleh and flatbread and kibbeh that tasted nothing like his mother’s. A couple of the men produced an oud and a drum, and they all danced a dabke.” – a Levantine Arab dish made of burgul (crushed wheat) or rice and chopped meat; a pear-shaped stringed instrument commonly used in North African and Middle Eastern music; the most popular Arab folk dance in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, literally “stamping of the feet.”
- Location 4378: “Some prayed next to their beds, phylacteries strapped to their foreheads and wound about their arms.” – Either of two small leather boxes, each containing strips of parchment inscribed with quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures, one of which is strapped to the forehead and the other to the left arm; traditionally worn by Jewish men during morning worship, except on the Sabbath and holidays.
- Location 7558: “But then what had he expected, a harem full of houris and a magic lamp for sleeping in?” – One of the beautiful virgins of the Koranic paradise.
- Location 8282: “She looked less like a princess than an odalisque, captured and resigned.” – A woman slave in a harem.
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