When I initially received a copy of Helene Wecker's debut, the premise didn't intrigue me in the least and this novel was quickly relegated to the case of books I donate to a local library. But in the following months, as The Golem and the Jinni garnered rave review after rave review, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. So when the paperback edition ended up in my mailbox, I knew I was bringing it with me to Southeast Asia.
The lunar new year is known as the Têt Holiday here in Vietnam and it lasts for over a week. During that span of time, most of the tourist attractions are closed and so are a majority of businesses. Having discovered that during the planning stages of my trip, I arranged my itinerary to be in Nha Trang for that period. I reasoned that if everything would be closed, at least I could head out to the beach. And so I did and I went through The Golem and the Jinni in a few short days. I really enjoyed the book. Since I always had it with me at breakfast and at lunch, the girls working at the hostel and the waitresses working at the restaurant where I always had my midday meal asked me what it was all about. And again, if you read the blurb or try to summarize the novel, it always sounds pretty lame and boring. . . And yet it's far from that!
Here's the blurb:
Helene Wecker's dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who appear mysteriously in 1899 New York. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York Harbor. Ahmad is a jinni, 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. Struggling to make their way in this strange new place, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their neighbors while masking their true natures. Surrounding them is a community of immigrants: the coffeehouse owner Maryam Faddoul, a pillar of wisdom and support for her Syrian neighbors; the solitary ice cream maker Saleh, a damaged man cursed by tragedy; the kind and caring Rabbi Meyer and his beleaguered nephew, Michael, whose Sheltering House receives newly arrived Jewish men; the adventurous young socialite Sophia Winston; and the enigmatic Joseph Schall, a dangerous man driven by ferocious ambition and esoteric wisdom. Meeting by chance, the two creatures become 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 menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice. Marvelous and compulsively readable, The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of folk mythology, historical fiction, and magical fable into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.
The most wonderful aspect of The Golem and the Jinni is how the author managed to capture the nuances and textures of the end of century New York City. As Carlos Ruiz Zafón did with Barcelona in The Shadow of the Wind, Wecker makes NYC come alive in extraordinary fashion. There is a wealth of historical details, some important and others mundane, woven into the story and the minutiae of it all makes for a beautifully atmospheric novel. Entertainment Weekly called it "an intoxicating fusion of fantasy and historical fiction" and the book is just that!
The characterization is interesting in the sense that, on their own, the two main protagonists are not that engaging. With their opposing natures, they make an unlikely pair of friends and their POVs can sometimes be tedious to read, especially at the beginning of the book. It's the supporting cast, as motley a group of men and women as they come, that makes both Ahmad and Chava come alive as characters. Their interactions with the world around them forge their personalities and help make them the endearing duo that they soon become. Although Ahmad and Chava share the spotlight from start to finish, it is through contacts with secondary characters such as Arbeely, Sophia Winston, Anna, the Radzins, Ice Cream Saleh, the Rabbi, Michael, Maryam, and the others that their lives are shaped. It's been a while since I have encountered such a delightful yet disparate cast of characters.
The structure of The Golem and the Jinni features sequences that occur in 1899 New York City, as well as flashback scenes which by increments unveil the truth behind Ahmad's capture and the secrets behind Chava's creation. It takes more than half of the novel to finally understand how the past and the present are linked and how they will shape the destinies of both the golem and the jinni. And once the threat is exposed, all of a sudden the book becomes nearly impossible to put down!
I loved how Ahmad and Chava's plight is no different from that of all the newly arrived immigrants around them. They are strangers in a strange land, trying to forge a new life for themselves. Helene Wecker's evocative prose makes the Lower East Side and the rest of NYC leap off the pages. Her descriptions create an imagery so tangible that you feel as though you are right there with the characters. À la Robin Hobb, the author possesses a deft human touch which allows her to charge this novel with rare emotional depth.
The pace is relatively slow-moving, especially in the first portion of the novel. It takes a while for both Ahmad and Chava to fully establish themselves as protagonists and it also takes some time for the reader to grasp how meaningful the events of the past will have repercussions in the future. And yet, though the rhythm is slow and nothing much appears to be taking place, The Golem and the Jinni is never a chore to read. Helene Wecker just needed time to lay the groundwork that leads to an unpredictable and quite satisfying finale.
With this superior debut, Helene Wecker demonstrated that she is an enchanting and skilled storyteller. If The Golem and the Jinni is any indication, this could be the beginning of a brilliant new voice in speculative fiction. Looking forward to what will come next. . .