A Genie. A golem. Nineteenth-century New York City. Boy, did I want to love this book. Drawn by its come-hither characters, its promise of poetry, and by its dark side in the form of a truly nasty character, I really, really wanted to love it. And truth is, I liked The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. But in the well-trod words of middle school, I didn’t “like like” it. Oh, it was fun, it made me smile sometimes and think sometimes and feel a bit sad at other times. I enjoyed hanging out with it for the length of its near-500 pages. But, despite that fire-genie at its heart, there just wasn’t that spark. I just wanted to be friends.
We meet our two fantastical characters early on via two different storylines. The Golem, Chava, travels to 1899 New York on a steamer and finds herself ashore in a Bowery neighborhood of Jewish immigrants. The Jinni, meanwhile, has traveled to New York via a bottle that has been sealed for centuries, only to be opened by a tinsmith in a Syrian neighborhood some blocks away. There, the two try to insinuate themselves into the mundane world that surrounds them while keeping their true selves hidden away. It is only when the two meet that they find someone they can confide in, though what their relationship will end up as neither can tell: the jinni, a creature of fire and air, the golem a creature of earth and clay. And meanwhile, as they make their tentative forays into the world, someone seeks to track them down and use them and their power for his own purposes.
The premise is wonderful. One quasi-immortal character made of earth and bound to service, one who can sense the desires of those around her and feels the need to give in to them, to ease their pain and sorrows and meet their needs. Another quasi-immortal character made of air and fire but captured in human form, aloof, fiercely independent, dismissive of most of those around him, not even dismissive of their feelings for that would imply he is aware of them. Set the two of them in historical New York — better yet, set them in two small immigrant neighborhoods, filled with people from different places all trying to make their own new home, learn their own new lives. It’s a great set-up.
And Wecker does a good job with it, conveying Chava’s fear at being found out and her desire to be what she is. Showing her slowly open up to the possibilities of an actual life in this world amongst humans. We watch her take baby steps into living, first as she meets a local rabbi who takes her under his gentle wing, then as she finds a job as an assistant baker, then as she gradually becomes part of the lives of those around her — her boss and his wife, her young fellow worker at the bakery, the rabbi’s son who runs a house for newly-arrived Jewish immigrants. It’s a lovely, slow blossoming and never feels rushed or rose-colored. Meanwhile, Ahmad also becomes an assistant worker, in this case to the tinsmith who accidentally released him. Like Chava, he is surrounded by a community, but unlike her he takes little notice of it, even as his presence begins to affect it. He chafes at his small room, his small workspace, and does what he wants when he wants, with little concern for consequences. When he meets Chava, the two do not, as one might assume, fall immediately into camaraderie or even romance, but instead argue as much, or more often, than not. She annoyed by his encouragement to be more selfish and free-spirited, he annoyed by her admonishment that he needs to be more aware of the effect he has on people’s lives.
Their characterization, both separately and together, is certainly one of the strong points of The Golem and the Jinni. All the characters are, from Chava’s rabbi to Ahmad’s tinsmith, from Anna the young co-worker who gets herself into trouble to Maryam, the mother-to-the neighborhood and go-to person for the Syrians. We don’t always get a lot of insight into these characters, don’t delve much into their personal lives outside of their interactions with the two main characters, but each feels wholly alive and real nonetheless and make up an intimate, moving tapestry of society within which our main characters move.
The plot is mostly concerned with the above, making it mostly a quieter character-driven story, though action in its more literal sense picks up greatly in the last 75-100 pages. It’s engaging throughout, never feeling at any point like it bogged down at all.
So a great premise, strong characters, an engaging plot, what’s not to like? Well, nothing. As I said, I did like it. And, as I said, I didn’t love it, despite wanting to. Why not? What was missing? That little bit of “extra” that separates the “good” from the “great.” I wanted more poetry, for instance. We’ve got a genie, a golem, and 19th century NYC, and yet I never, or almost never, felt transported by the language. The book just cried out for heightened language, rich vocabulary and sentence structure, and it nearly always lacked any of that. It was serviceable, it was, in the words of the press release “readable” (to be fair, they called it “compulsively readable”), but when I’m reading about a different time and a world that spawns magical creatures, I want more than “readable.” The prose isn’t poorly written; it’s just too often too flat for its subject matter. Now, it’s possible I’m doing a disservice to Wecker here, that she has purposely eschewed heightened language to make the point that these fantastical creatures have become tethered to a mundane world. I can see that, can even get behind it. Intellectually. But the reader in me still wants that bit more sizzle.
I also wanted more sense of time and place. Just as with the language, I didn’t feel transported to this other place, this other time. The same was true in the flashback scenes when we’re in Ahmad’s desert home. Here and there, we get a fleeting glimpse of what could have been, as when Ahmad enters a dance hall that reminds him of his palace back a thousand years and thousands of miles away. To be honest, through much of the book, even as I was enjoying it, I kept thinking what would it have been like in the hands of Mark Helprin or Umberto Eco or Salman Rushdie. And yes, I recognize those are unfair comparisons, but the book didn’t have to rise to those writers’ level, just make the attempt.
In the end, The Golem and the Jinni is certainly a good book. I enjoyed it all the way through, wanted to know what would happen to these characters, was mostly pleased by the ending (a mix of surprising and predictable). If it fell short of what it could have been, it still rose above a lot of what is currently out there. And it certainly puts Wecker on a list of authors to pay attention to.
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker’s debut novel, adds a layer of depth and mystery to the traditional immigrant’s tale with the addition of her title characters. In 1899 New York, a golem without a master and a jinni who was enslaved by a wizard struggle to survive and find meaning in their existences, and in doing so, bring changes to the humans around them.
The golem was created to be a wife to a lonely, self-centered furniture maker who leaves Prussia and go to New York. On the voyage, he dies after awakening the golem. In New York, the golem is taken in by Avram Meyer, a rabbi who knows a bit about golems. She raises a moral conundrum for Meyer; golems, primarily designed to be protective, can be destructive and the correct thing to do would be to destroy a masterless one, but he sees her as innocent and child-like, and can’t bring himself to do it. He decides to help her fit in to human society.
In another part of the city, a neighborhood called Little Syria, an industrious metal-smith named Boutros Arbeely begins to repair a copper oil flask, and releases a jinni who has been trapped for a thousand years. Even freed of the bottle, the jinni is not free; he wears an iron band on his wrist that he cannot remove. The lives of Rabbi Meyer, Boutros Arbeely and their families will be forever changed by these events.
After setting her two folkloric creatures loose in the teeming city, Wecker unfolds her story at a leisurely pace. The golem and the jinni do not even meet until page 172. During that time, the author introduces us to Little Syria. We meet Saleh, who was a doctor and a healer in his own country, who struggles with a peculiar kind of madness, and is now reduced to selling ice cream; Michael, a good-hearted intellectual and the rabbi’s nephew, who has lost his faith; we meet Maryam Faddoul, who runs a coffee house with her husband and is the bright spark, the caretaker, of the neighborhood. Wecker has moments of brilliant wit, as when she describes the baker’s wife:
Among her husband’s employees she worked as a matchmaker in reverse, listing their defects to any man who showed an interest.
The book is also filled with moments of excruciating loneliness. The golem does not sleep, so each night she sits in her room at the boarding house and takes apart her dress, then re-sews it.
She had devised this occupation soon after coming to the boardinghouse, when she’d spent an evening so dull that she’d resorted to counting things to pass the time. She’d counted the tassels on her lampshade (eighteen) and the number of boards in the floor (two hundred forty seven) and had opened her armoire in search of more things to count, when her gaze fell on the dress.
The jinni, meanwhile, who has been given the name Ahmad, roams the city at night, riding the Elevated train and exploring Central Park. He encounters a wealthy debutante, Sophia Winston. The jinni, a powerful magical creature, is prideful and full of desire. Because of these traits, and because of his experience with humans, he fits into the city better than the newly created golem. Ahmad has no memory of how he was enslaved, but Wecker gives the reader the story of his past, sprinkling it in with his adventures in this new city.
While Ahmad explores the city, the rabbi and the golem struggle with powerful philosophical questions. Can the golem have a soul, even though she was not created by God? The golem herself struggles with existential dilemmas, as in this conversation with the jinni:
“But your life affects others, and you don’t seem to realize it.” She looked down to her hands, tangled in her lap.” Perhaps it’s unfair to wish otherwise. We’re our natures, you and I.”
Wecker jettisons her measured pace about three-quarters of the way through the book when the man who created the golem arrives in New York as well. This man is a solid villain with a fascinating backstory, and at this point the author tries her hand at action and suspense. I think this creates some confusion about the nature of the book; suddenly it begins to look like a fantasy novel, which it is not. Once the villain is onstage and sets his nefarious scheme in motion, it seems like things are much too easy for him. Basically, every bit of information he needs is in the hands of one of two or three people and he finds them easily, and suddenly people are taking hostages, barging into houses and borrowing carriages right and left. It’s a departure from the flow and the tone of the earlier story.
The real suspense here is whether the golem and the jinni can find any kind of happiness in this new life. The ending is not bad and it didn’t spoil the book for me; and I found the villain to be a fascinating character. I only think the choice to go this way creates some confusion as to what kind of book this is.
I like — I really like — how Wecker treats her women characters. The decision to make a female golem was new. In trying to play against type, Wecker stumbles into another stereotype with the golem as a docile, earthy, receptive, obedient female. This could have been a disaster, but Wecker ultimately, through the actions of the rabbi, puts the golem’s destiny into her own earthen hands. Maryam Faddoul is the leader of her neighborhood, even if she leads over trays of coffee. The inevitable pregnant and unmarried woman character prevails and finds some measure of happiness. Even the debutante Sophie Winston manages to break free of the glittering snow-globe of her privileged life, and approach the world on her own terms.
Like thousands of others who came to the new world, both the golem and jinni have an idea of how their lives will be. What they find, on an alien shore, is something completely different. Like Saleh, like Maryam, like Rabbi Meyer, each one must adjust, must make changes. Success, safety, community, do not look exactly the way those things did back home. Like the beautiful embossed tin ceiling Ahmad makes in the metal-smith shop, The Golem and the Jinni works best as an exquisite mural of the immigrant experience.
At the turn of the 20th century, New York receives two immigrants of unusual stock. One is a golem made from clay, carried to New York via ship from Danzig. The other, a Jinni, released from his flask by an unwitting tinsmith in New York’s Little Syria. It is not clear who is stranger, these two immigrants or the strange land they have found themselves in, but they will soon be drawn into each other’s stories to colossal consequences.
The creation of Chava the golem was commissioned by one Otto Rotfeld in Danzig. A disgraced former rabbi who now dabbles in dark magic created her to be a submissive and docile wife for Otto, but he rather inconveniently dies on the voyage to New York — not before waking Chava first.
Luckily for Chava, she finds herself under the care of a kindly rabbi who realises at once her true nature. He coaches and guides her through the murky waters of what it is to be human, and Chava finds herself desperate to blend in, despite not eating or sleeping or understanding the fickle whims of human motivations. To top it all off, she constantly hears the desires of the people all around her — with the death of her true master Otto, she now hears the wishes of everyone.
Across in Little Syria, the Jinni Ahmad has been released from his flask. Naked and disorientated in the workshop of the tinsmith that has released him, he can hardly conceive that centuries of imprisonment in the copper flask have elapsed. But he has an extraordinary way with metal, and agrees to apprentice for the tinsmith whilst searching for a way to return to his homeland and his true form.
Wecker jumps skilfully between plotlines, and it’s often difficult to believe that The Golem and the Jinni is her first novel. Between Chava and Ahmad’s stories, there are frequent flashbacks to the Bedouin wanderers of Ahmad’s past, as well as the tales of Chava’s creator, the rabbi that saved her and the tinsmith, not to mention a small host of other cast members. The skill Wecker has in propelling the plot whilst not dropping a single thread is quite impressive.
In fact, it is the characters that make the novel such a delight. Wecker brings incredible humanity to the lonely Chava, a girl who does not sleep or eat, let alone understand the spectrum of human emotions. The same is true of Ahmad, whose lofty disdain for mankind ought to make him unrelatable, but his quick temper and sarcastic outlook make him all too human.
Wecker’s prose is also a pleasure to read. She paints a vivid picture of 19th century New York and evokes the sights and smells that must’ve felt like a physical assault on all immigrants first arriving there. As a debut novel is it certainly an accomplishment. At its heart is simple, good storytelling. Lucky it’s the first in a series; the sequel is The Hidden Palace.
In no way does The Golem and the Jinni read as Helene Wecker’s debut novel — it’s engrossing, beautifully written, complex in terms of both character development and storytelling, and skillfully integrates fantastical elements into a well-researched historical narrative. Using a golem and a jinni as analogues for human immigrants to New York City in 1899 was a wise choice, and supporting their stories with the plights and successes of human characters like Saleh the Ice Cream Man (who was absolutely my favorite character) and Sophia Winston rounds the tale out so nicely. I can’t wait to read the second book in the series, The Hidden Palace, because I definitely want to know what happens next to Chava, Ahmad, and the city itself.