What a masterful storyteller! Helene Wecker captures your attention and keeps it till the very end.
The Golem and the Jinni tells the story of two unlikely beings who find themselves in a strange world. Chava and Ahmad develop a beautiful timeless friendship under the most unlikely circumstances. Both are supposed mythical creatures who find themselves in New York City of all places, navigating the daily trials of life in the big city. Chava is a golem who was created for the sole purpose of being a wife. She was created in Poland by Yehudah Shaalman- a shady rabbi- known to delve in dark arts, but doesn’t awaken until she is on a ship boarded for America with her soon-to-be -husband. However, shortly after awakening he dies. Chava who has never been around humans doesn’t have a clue about what to do. She gets by on her new found ability to understand what humans are thinking, and she reacts to their desires by playing everything by ear.
Ahmad is a jinni who has been trapped in a flask for centuries. He is accidentally released by a tinsman named Arbeely. Enraged and unable to take his true form -due to the iron band placed on his wrist by his capture,-he too is lost and unable to understand where he is or what is expected of him. His last memory was of the Syrian dessert where his kind lived and ruled the dessert. He also remembers the wizard who trapped him in the flask, but little else about where to find the wizard, and how to break his band. Trapped in human form, the Jinn begins his life in New York working as apprentice to Arbeely. True to his nature he creates all sorts of mischief, both intentional and not.
This story was so rich. These characters were endearing as they discovered the in and outs of the human world. How to blend it and deal with emotions, both their own and others. After Chava’s master dies on the boat to New York, Chava finds that she can hear people’s thoughts. As if she wasn’t already confused, now she has a million voices to deal with, all consumed with their own fears and desires. She is saved by Rabbi Meyer who recognizes what she is instantly. He shelters her from harm and helps her adapt to the human world. Their relationship becomes that of father and daughter, and it was one of my favorite things about the novel.
Ahmad is a little arrogant at first. He’s a jinni who is accustomed to glass castles and is made out of fire. Conformity doesn’t suit him. Therefore, he ignores the well meaning advice of Arbeely. As a human man, he lives his life much the same way he would if he were still a Jinni. Freely and unconcerned about others.
Ahmad’s transformation is another favorite things to see. How he learns to feel regret towards the people he’s harmed whether directly or inadvertently. Compassion for those whose lives’s are not the best, and Loyalty towards those he grows to love.
This is a pretty big book, but I honestly didn’t notice. The plot moves at a very even paced. It alternates between the past and present, as well as giving us multiple view points. All this enhances the story and kept me entertained until the end, where everything comes full circle. Helene Wecker’s writing is poetic almost to the point of being fairy tale like. From her descriptions of the rough Danzig cold, to the growing metropolis of New York, and the sparse landscape of the Syrian dessert, everything is richly detailed. The switch between the angles of the story was genius. I was never confused by what was going on, and in a story this big and complex it happens often.
Here I’m about to get a bit English major, but I felt that this also makes you look at the whole nature/ nurture debate. Both Chava and Ahmad struggle with what they are, and if that is their sole definer. Which I feel begs the question, are we all destined to behave certain ways because of our genetic make -up, or can we break away from that and make our own choices based on what we learn? This is what makes this story so much more than just a fantasy/historical fiction novel. It makes you think, and entertains. What more could you want from a story? As a representation of the immigrant experience, this felt very authentic, and it also went in line with much of what I’ve learned.
Lastly,I would have appreciated a more conclusive ending, but I wasn’t disappointed by it either.
Overall, if you like whimsical story, historical fiction and great characterization, then I think you’ll enjoy this one!