The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – A review

Photo courtesy: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15819028-the-golem-and-the-jinni

This début novel by Helene Wecker is one you seek when you want an intellectual challenge. When you have questions about existentialism. When you wish for a novel so extraordinary, It falls into your hands on an ordinary sort of day. It is that one book you hope to find in a small mysterious book store, fragrant with old paper and antique polish. Then you become so inextricably linked to these timeless characters, who are very much a part of a great literary journey, you have found a perfect book that is part historical fiction, part idealistic.

 

A Golem is a mythical being. It is my first time meeting one. A jin or genie is just as magical and I only know of them from reading Tales of the Arabian Nights. One borne of clay the other borne of fire. I am not familiar with either. So let’s meet them.

The narrative is slow. Carefully crafted. Characters are compelling and layered, then gently developed, never pushing them on the reader. The story is a magical explosion of words morphing into a mix of old legend with new beginnings. It is the end of the 19th century in New York city, as new immigrants adjust to a new way of life. Two magical beings, one sophisticated and old, the other new and compassionate, try to survive within their human limitations in a vast urban immigrant community.

Chava is unusual. Made of clay. Created by a rabbi experimenting with the darker aspects of Kabbala, Chava comes to life in the most unusual of circumstances.

Otto Rotfeld is looking for a wife. He is ordinary. Not particularly successful nor attractive. He would like companionship. He commissions rabbi Yehudah Shaalman to create a golem in the shape of a woman. She must be virtuous, tender, intelligent and kind. Suffering from a burst appendix, Otto dies on the way to New York city. Before he does, he speaks the words that brings Chava, his golem to life. Now a wife, bereft, she floats among people, alone in a strange city.

A retired rabbi from the lower east side spots her, wandering aimlessly and homeless. Knowing what she is, he takes her in. A golem you see, is a strong creäture designed to destroy. Chava’s conscience is a constant bee hive of thoughts, she has a keen sense of perception as to the wants and needs of those around her. Impossible to silence, and unable to help or control the volume of thoughts, she must learn to live among humans. She must hide her inability to sleep, her violent tendencies, her nocturnal roaming around town, when propriety requires that a young woman cannot walk the city at night. She must  also confront who she really is. Chava learns to bake, finds a job at a bakery during the day and takes in sewing to make it through the night. She isn’t stunningly beautiful. Yet her beauty lies in how she learns to be human. Her compassion is her beacon of light.

In little Syria, a few miles away, Arbeely the tinsmith, tinkers with an unusual copper flask. As it happens, he frees a handsome, arrogant jinni from the flask. Although he appears to be free, he really isn’t. He is trapped in human form, bound by an iron cuff on his wrist. Jins are not immune to iron. Arbeely takes the jinni into his shop, allows him free rein and names him Ahmad. They become a team. Ahmad is so wonderful with metal, he makes people fall in love with his creations which he works and molds from his bare hands. So much so, the little shop can barely handle the business. Ahmad however, is restless. His arrogance does not care for a challenge, and keeping his identity a secret, is clearly his challenge. He loves women. He becomes infatuated with a young woman who in turn becomes infatuated with him, it is purely physical on his part.

Chava and Ahmad eventually do meet. When they do, the story peaks and flows like the sweetest of melodies. Their characters are intelligently bound. They add layer upon layer of magic and substance to their relationship. It is overwhelmingly beautiful, a gentle and tentative friendship; immigrants learning strange customs in a new land, adjusting to a new culture and discovering their humanity in the process.

Helene Wecker adds a wonderful ensemble to support Chava and Ahmad, where each brings depth and a richness to their immigrant story. As Chava and Ahmad have intense philosophical discussions about free will and their limitations as humans, we learn about their ability to love within those restrictions. They’re enslaved yet free. She is concerned about greed and the intensity of human desire. Ahmad wants instant gratification. He is proud of his heritage, proud of being a jinni. A being of the old world, he moans the limits of his humanity. Ahmad wants to escape his bonds and find glory. Chava has simple needs. She has lengthy and poignant conversations with the rabbi about satisfying humans. She is fearful and tentative, always aware of revealing too much. Together in a strange country, they find middle ground, a way to survive. Their story is romantic as it is idealistic. As they learn about love, there is an unspeakable danger neither is aware of. Wecker does a brilliant job of presenting the footsteps of foreboding, the ominous adversary lurking about, ready to strike.

The Golem and the Jinni is everything a book should be. Its imperfections are what makes it so perfect. Not because the author has made mistakes, but because of her characters and their flaws, their limitations as humans. It is really about exploring human nature, its passions and the need to belong. It is about our boundaries, our limitations and how we try to find ourselves. The book has a memory, one that lives long after you are done –  a combination of a world imagined, real and lyrical.

 Book – The Golem and the Jinni

  • Hard cover, 486 pages
  • Published by,Harper Collins
  • First Edition, 2013
  • ISBN 978-0-06-211083-1

 

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14 thoughts on “The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – A review

  1. Fascinating review. If only I had time to read, though I must admit I am reading another Jodi Picoult book, I don’t know, but I enjoy her style of writing..they are easy reads that I can just drift away in. Have you done homework about doing book reviews for magazines or Book stores? I wish I could find an opportunity for you as you have such a skill my lovely, evidence once again in the above piece . xx

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    • Hello lovely, aren’t you wonderful! so much love and encouragement. I did in fact apply to a publishing house for a book reviewing job, I didn’t get it but I will be on their volunteer list. I’m still searching. I will continue to read and write, who knows what will come up.
      xxx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. MM, Sounds fascinating and I admire your choice of books and your ability to stay with a book even when it’s slow to develop. I am currently reading “Without You There is No Us,” a nonfiction book about a South Korean-American woman who journeyed to North Korea as a missionary teacher to teach English to North Korea’s elite young men. As you probably know about me, I am intrigued by North Korea. It’s why I had to see the film, The Interview, which was silly but pretty funny, and why I think the best Frontline documentary ever was the one they did last year on North Korea.

    You write about books and films. When are you going to share with us about your favorite TV shows? Please write about Parenthood (4 episodes left!). Also do you watch the Mindy Project? I LOVE Mindy! Have a great week, my dear friend!

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    • I’ve been meaning to ask you about the Interview since you told me you saw it. I’ve heard it’s a bit on the silly side. Your books sounds so interesting. I don’t read non-fiction as often as I’d like to. I’m adding this title to my list. I don’t know Monica, I try to read at least a page everyday. It is my go-to, my place of escape. I seem to fall peacefully asleep when I read before bed, well, er, that is if the book is peaceful or doesn’t leave me with questions.

      I have wanted to write about Parenthood. I really will. I can’t believe only 4 more to go. I never got into the Mindy Project. I love her humor.
      Did you watch Downton? oh you and I could chat on and on, my friend. The costumes are better and everyone looks good, somehow. How do they do it?

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  3. Hello hello!
    I finally got the book at my library! Your review is so wonderful that I couldn’t resist the pleasure to read this book. So far, I like it! it’s intriguing and like you said very nicely written. I let you know when i am done!
    thanks for sharing your love of books!

    May be San told you that I am working with a French magazine, which is also in English. It’s a magazine about well-being. You can check it here.
    http://www.taographie.fr/

    Would like to write something for this magazine? I will be happy to translate it in French for you. If any of your readers would like to participate as well, please feel free to send me your article at
    thebuoyblog@gmail.com

    Florence

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    • Hello Florence, so lovely to hear from you. I hope you are keeping well. I would love to know what you think of the book when you are done. For a debut novel, it is one of the most multilayered, complex books, I have read in a long time. Such a skilled portrayal of mythical characters finding human limitations restrictive.

      How exciting. Thank you so much for asking, so very kind of you. Yes, I would love to write for the magazine. I will email you before I begin.
      Take Care

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      • Hello!
        I have just finished the book “The Golem and the Jinni.” I loved it!
        After reading the book, I can tell how much love and enthusiasm you put in your reading and writing! It’s really your review that made me read this novel. Many thanks for sharing your passion with us!
        First, I was intrigued by the idea of the story of this improbable encounter between two very different creatures. One is a free spirit from Arabic’s tales and the other is a character of a Jewish legend. A golem was created to protect the Jewish people in Prague during the 18e century. I have read many stories about both of them and especially about the golem (I recommend the novel by Marek Halter, the Kabbalist of Prague).
        In H W ‘s novel, the Golem and the Jinni are two extraordinary people living ordinary lives. It’s a tremendous way to underline the lives of the humans around them.
        I was skeptical about the choice of the city, i How could they end up in NYC? But everything is possible in this amazing city! They got King Kong, Godzilla, and even the Smurfs ahaha!
        You describe so nicely the story that I agree with all the things you wrote in your review. I would add that I liked the way these to completely different person become friends. They have nothing in common and yet, it’s when they are together that they can be their true selves. They don’t have to pretend to be someone else. You cannot hide who you really are with someone you love and loves you. When the romance started, I was wondering how this could end. It’s when the bad guy show is true self too! The plot is well conceived like a puzzle until we see the whole picture.
        it’s a fascinating, elegant and heartwarming novel. Perfect for the cold winter of New Jersey!
        Thanks again for this excellent novel!
        Florence

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      • I loved what you have to say Florence, so beautifully eloquent when you say, ” you cannot hide your true self when you are with someone you love and who loves you” which I think is part of the puzzle. H.W. is remarkable in how she kept us guessing. Just when you wondered how it would be, it turned out to be something different. This is a book that stayed with me and will stay with me for good.

        I am working on my article. I will email it soon.
        Thank you so much for writing back with your thoughts, I’m so glad you enjoyed the book

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