Reposting to include Marion’s new review.
The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker
In The Hidden Palace (2021) Helene Wecker returns to the richly-imagined world of The Golem and the Jinni, fin de siècle New York City, focusing on the Jewish and Syrian immigrant communities. Chava, an intelligent golem created by an evil-hearted genius, was set free by the unexpected death of her intended husband and master, left with the ability to hear the thoughts of all humans instead of just her master. The jinni Ahmad is released from the bottle that imprisoned him, but he is bound to tangible human form with no discernable way to remove the curse. Despite their opposite natures of earth and fire, golem and jinni are drawn together in a world where neither fits in, and both are hiding their true natures from the humans around them … at least, most of them.
As The Hidden Palace begins, Ahmad returns from his journey to Damascus, disheartened by the inability of his jinn people to remove the enchanted iron arm cuff that chains him to human form. He returns to the metal-smithing shop of Boutros Arbeely as a partner, while Chava is still the lead baker at Radzin’s Bakery, though as the years go by she worries that people are starting to notice that she never ages. Ahmad and Chava tentatively begin a new phase of their relationship, but their personalities — as different as their natures — lead to conflicts.
Wecker weaves several other characters and subplots into this novel, which stretches over several years in the early 1900s. A brilliant but neglected young Jewish girl, Kreindel Altschul, is drawn into her old-school (heh) rabbi father’s plans to create a huge golem to assist the Jewish people against their oppressors in eastern Europe. But Kreindel’s father is in ill health, and he lacks the skills of the magician who created Chava. Chava’s former friend Anna had her trust in Chava broken when she became aware of Chava’s monstrous nature and immense strength and has avoided Chava for years, but her son Toby is curious about his mother’s old friends, and haunted by persistent nightmares of a wicked magician that he can’t understand.
Wealthy socialite Sophia Winston, left with a debilitating physical chill from her brief affair with the jinni in the first book, breaks free of the strictures of New York high society and travels to the Middle East in search of a cure, protected by a pair of retired Pinkerton detectives. There Sophia meets a female jinni, or jinniyeh, called Dima, who has the unique ability to touch iron and a fascination with the stories she’s heard of the iron-bound jinni who lives in America. Dima promises Sophia a cure to what has ailed her for so long, but for a price.
Tadiana: I’m not sure what direction I thought Helene Wecker would go with this sequel to The Golem and the Jinni, but The Hidden Palace was surprising in some good ways. We meet all of our favorite characters from the first book, along with some new key viewpoint characters. Of the new characters, I especially loved Kreindel, who is stubborn and doesn’t always make wise choices or adapt well to her surroundings, but has immense strength of character and intelligence. Familiar characters face new challenges that flow from the prior conflicts and issues but take them in new directions. Chava gains special admission at the Teachers College at Columbia University, and eventually winds up teaching Culinary Science at the Asylum for Orphaned Hebrews, where she crosses paths with a certain headstrong teenage girl and her massive golem that hides in the Asylum’s basement. One of the most delightful parts of this novel was just how dedicated and inspired Chava is as a teacher of young girls.
Jana: Oh, I thought Kreindel was absolutely delightful. She’s so self-possessed and headstrong, with plenty of intelligence to back up her strength of personality, and her insistence on maintaining some of the more orthodox aspects of her faith while expressing “shockingly” modern ideas on whether women should change their surnames after marriage or become educated to their fullest capabilities. And it was a true pleasure to follow the continuing paths of characters like Sophia Winston and Miryam Faddoul, as they charmed me so much in The Golem and the Jinni, while learning more about Toby Blumberg, who is becoming a rather interesting young man as the city around him changes and evolves with the turning years.
The Golem and the Jinni, themselves, go through some well-thought-out character shifts and explosive arguments as they each try to figure out how to (and to what extent to) incorporate themselves into the ever-changing human society around them, which leads to a lot of chapters in which they are painfully aware of one another’s absence but unable to figure out how to reconcile, but I was happy with their resolutions to this volume’s challenges. Unfortunately, Dima never jumped off the page and came alive for me, and the other golem, Yossele, didn’t figure nearly as much in the overall story as I was expecting, which was disappointing. But there’s a lot going on here, with numerous characters and time-shifts and settings and historical events, so it’s natural that some plot elements would feel a little less well-seasoned than others.
Tadiana: One of the things that impressed me most about The Golem and the Jinni was how vividly Wecker recreated historic New York City. Her world-building skills are marvelous, and in The Hidden Palace she weaves many historical events and people into her narrative, including T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the torpedoing of the Lusitania, deadly tenement fires, and the calamitous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
Jana: I think one of Wecker’s storytelling strengths is in how vividly she brings early 20th-century New York City to life and makes it a character on its own merits. I was glad to see her incorporate real events like the sinking of the Titanic and various labor disputes into the narrative; leaving them out would have made the story hollow and seem divorced from the real world, which would only be to the detriment of the novel.
Tadiana: The Hidden Palace is somewhat slower-paced; like the first book, it tends to meander between different subplots and take a lot of time to develop the story and build toward the final conflict. Those culminating scenes didn’t have quite the power or impact of those in The Golem and the Jinni. The resolution of a couple of the plotlines (Toby’s nightmares and the jinniyeh’s search for a kindred spirit) struck me as rather anticlimactic.
Jana: Agreed. While The Golem and the Jinni seemed more self-contained, in that if there weren’t follow-up books, I would still have been completely satisfied with the story as it was told, The Hidden Palace leaves many more questions unanswered and waiting for another installment. I did find myself wishing that bits of the narrative had been streamlined just a touch here and there, especially since the overall narrative covers the years between 1900 and 1915, leaving our characters on the brink of tremendous turmoil: World War I, the 1918 flu outbreak, the first moments of success for the American women’s suffragette movement, and so much else. Should there be another novel, whatever happens in it, Wecker really has her work cut out for her!
Tadiana: Still, this is an engaging and touching novel, dealing with not just conflicts between people but also with themes of love and developing understanding and friendship, even when there are vast differences between us. Ahmad builds a beautiful and fragile secret construction inside the Amherst building, which may be the primary hidden palace of the story, but I think the title also alludes to the secrets and hidden strengths within the characters themselves.
Jana: I think so, as well. Most of the characters carry hidden palaces within them, building delicate towers of dreams and hopes that are invisible to others unless that person allows themself to become vulnerable. I thought it was a lovely and apt metaphor, and it’s one of the many strengths of The Hidden Palace. I hope we get the chance to see how Chava and Ahmad react to the changes the world has in store for them, and also, how Wecker addresses questions and issues left unanswered since The Golem and the Jinni.
~Tadiana & Jana
Closing this book for the final time, my emotional state was close to what I feel at the end of a visit with a dear friend I haven’t seen in a while. This doesn’t address what happens in the book or why I loved it, but it’s where I wanted to start. I was so happy to be back with these characters.
I thought I would have to re-read The Golem and the Jinni, but I didn’t. Chava and Ahmad have grown, but I could pick right up with them, with Miryam, Arbeely and the others. I welcomed the new characters, most especially Kreindel and Toby.
Jana and Tadiana covered the important points of The Hidden Palace so well I have little to add. Like Jana, I didn’t engage with Dima, the jinneyeh, at first. She started working better for me as a character when I took her — strange since she is a rebel jinni — as the conventional jinni. She is, in many ways, an innocent. She is mercurial, passionate, selfish. She owes humans nothing. She’s a temptation to Ahmad, but also a milestone, a measure of how much he has changed, although he doesn’t see it.
I loved the parts where Chava was teaching. It’s a tiny, tiny moment in the book, but I want to call out her interview, where she explains how she taught the other bakers at the bakery. At first, she says, she taught them by rote. She remembered how clear things became to her when she understood about yeast, so, instead, she teaches them the chemistry of baking! In a book filled with magic, that moment felt the most magical to me.
The strange beauty of the jinni’s hidden palace delighted me. Overall, the book was as rich as the first book, inhabited by real people with conflicts, dreams, fears and loves. There is room for a third, or as many as Wecker wants to write, since her main characters are nearly immortal, but I would read anything Wecker writes at this point.