Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker

The Golem and the JinniThe Golem's life began in the hold of a steamship. The year was 1899; the ship was the Baltika, crossing from Danzig to New York. The Golem's master, a man named Otto Rotfeld, had smuggled her aboard in a crate and hidden her among the luggage.

"Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899. Ahmad is a djinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world. The Golem & The Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice."

This was such a great, intriguing fantasy novel, full of lyrical descriptions and great turn-of-the-century historical detail. Wecker really conjured up, much like a jinni, sensory descriptions of New York City and of the Arabian desert a thousand years earlier, where the jinni was trapped before being accidentally released in 1899 New York. This book's been on my stack for a while now, and I really wish I'd read it sooner. I'm not sure why I didn't, really, because as soon as I picked it up in the bookstore (having never heard of it before) the story drew me in immediately and I quickly read the first couple of chapters. Yet once I bought it it took me several months to actually start reading the book. It might be because of its heft; it does seem somewhat forbidding and gilt-adorned. It's not really that long of a book though, and it's just so atmospheric.

I loved the fact that the golem was female; that's a bit unusual, as in the traditional golem stories, it's generally a male. She was a great character, and so was the jinni. They're from totally different parts of the world, but they both end up in the great melting pot - New York. Speaking of which, New York was described so well; the sights and sounds and smells of a big, bustling, dirty, and vibrant city right at the end of one century and the beginning of the next. The book seemed pretty historically accurate, and the author must have done quite a lot of research when she wrote about the various neighborhoods of New York and the tradespeople.

The book itself was physically beautiful, with lovely jacket paper, gilt, and dark blue pages on the outside (I'm not sure what the actual term for that is). This added to the experience of reading this immersing book. It's one of those books that draw you in so that without even realizing it, you've read a lot of pages and can't let go. I was entranced and enchanted by this story, and I wanted to find out how the golem and the jinni would eventually meet.

The Golem and the Jinni also talks a little about class distinctions and divides; one of the main characters is Sophia Winston, a dissatisfied young socialite. She was perhaps a bit of a stereotype, an archetype that's repeated over and over: the rich young woman who seeks adventure. But perhaps that portrayal is common simply because it is very compelling and relatable.

There are so many threads of the book which are woven so skillfully; many of the supporting characters have complicated backstories. There's the owner of the coffee house which is the center of Little Syria, there's an ice cream marker with a tragic, cursed past, the kindly rabbi who takes in the golem, and more. Each of them has their own narrative which is delved into, and the author brought it all together very well. I do wish, though, that the golem and the jinni had met earlier; it's at around page 170 that their two lives finally collide, and that could have happened before. Still, the once the narrative really gets going, it's a page-turner, and there are so many amazing parts to the story, parts that you don't even realize are connected until the masterful finish.

I loved this book, and would highly, highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction, and rich, multi-faceted fantasy. Read other reviews here and here.

484 pages.

Rating: *****


  1. Did you prefer this or the goldfinch?

    1. I loved both, but the two books are nothing alike! I think I did enjoy The Golem and the Jinni a bit more though; it was just so beautiful.

  2. Thanks I couldn't decide which to read first!