1899, book review, complex narrative, desire vs reason, golem, Helene Wecker, historical fiction, immigrants, Jewish life, jinni, Kabbala, legend, Lower East Side, magical realism, occult, pleasure vs conscience, Syrian Desert
Review: The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker
HarperCollins, 2013. 484 pp. $16
The year 1899 witnesses two occult events, unnoticed by ordinary folk but with great potential for mischief. A Polish businessman sets sail for New York with a female golem in a crate, a creature made of clay through Kabbalistic magic. But he dies during the voyage, leaving the golem, who knows nothing about life, to cope once the ship reaches its destination—she walks ashore and takes up residence on the Lower East Side. She’s a newborn adult with immense physical strength and an ability to hear unexpressed human thoughts and desires.
Meanwhile, blocks away, a tinsmith repairs an antique copper flask, unwittingly freeing the jinni trapped inside. A very different being, he’s lived for centuries, mostly in the Syrian Desert, and will probably live several more. And though he’s strong and quick, what sets him apart is the light he radiates and the warmth of his touch, which allows him to melt most metals, as the tinsmith soon discovers. But this jinni grants no one three wishes. He’s no slave and will fight hard against any attempt to change or modify his behavior.
The narrative of The Golem and the Jinni, besides telling the (somewhat) magical realist tale of how these two characters adjust to the New World—and whom they influence, and how—is much larger than that, wherein lies its charm. In vigorous, vivid prose, the novel explores what freedom, conscience, empathy, and pleasure mean to human existence, and how difficult it is to balance them.
The golem, who acquires the name Chava (via the Hebrew word for “life”) gets a job in a bakery, where she works like three women and tries hard to fit in, unnoticed. But she feels cursed by her gift of hearing what people would rather hide; a chorus of desire clamors in her head, and it seems to her that humans never stop wanting, especially what they can’t have. Aware of her terrifying strength and the need to act justly and carefully, Chava dares not let herself go, ever. What’s more, if an unscrupulous person ever learned her true identity and uttered the correct incantation, she’d be bound as slave to that master, likely for evil purposes.
By contrast, the jinni, called Ahmad, has no particular love for humans, sees nothing wrong with taking pleasure or profit where he may find it, and has little or no loyalty to anyone. Consequently, when he meets Chava, the two irritate each other no end, yet, as in the attraction of opposites, each realizes what the other represents and is curious. They seek each other’s company at night, because neither likes or needs to sleep, and there’s a lot of time to spend. So they take nocturnal walks, as with this excursion along the rooftops of Prince Street:
The rooftops were like a hidden thoroughfare, bustling with nighttime traffic. Men, women, and children came and went, running errands, passing information, or simply heading home. Workingmen in greased overalls held parliament around the rims of ash-barrels, their faces red and flickering. Boys idled in corners, eyes alert. The Golem caught the sense of borders being guarded, but the Jinni, it seemed, was a familiar face. Mostly their doubts were directed at herself: a strange woman, tall and clean and primly dressed. Some of the younger boys took her for a social worker, and hid in the shadows.
Naturally, there are complications; The Golem and the Jinni is an intricate book, maybe to a fault. There’s the rabbi who mentors Chava; the bakery; the social worker smitten by her; and the mysterious man-of-all-work who pretends to do his bidding but is really biding his time. You’ve also got the tinsmith; neighborhood characters like a physician turned ice-cream maker; a beautiful, young socialite; and Ahmad’s long back story in the Syrian Desert, often hard to distinguish from a dream—or, sometimes, to place accurately within the time frame of the novel.
Wecker’s rendering of the Lower East Side works well enough, but, though I get a sense of certain places or neighborhoods, the scenery sometimes feels more like a stage set than a lived-in place. I also note a few minor anachronisms, facets of life that didn’t yet exist in 1899, though would a few years later. The presentation of Jewish life stumbles in places—for instance, the rabbi doesn’t seem entirely rabbinical, and the bakery likely would have closed during Passover—but again, not enough to question authenticity.
Nevertheless, despite occasional obscurities, particularly where the narrative’s disparate parts fail to fit together seamlessly, I recommend The Golem and the Jinni. It’s a wonderful tale, full of passion, adventure, and inquiry, told with imaginative flair.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.