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