Yet another fantastic debut novel! My husband picked this up at the library; the dark blue edging on the pages had caught his attention, as well as the gorgeous blue and gold cover with its enigmatic title. I am very glad he brought it to my attention, as it was a beautiful, touching read.
The Golem and the Jinni is the tale of two immigrants in early 19th century New York. These aren’t your typical immigrants, however. The Golem, created by a mystic in Poland, was made-to-order by a man wanting a wife. He died on the voyage over, hours after awakening her. With her original master-bond broken, the Golem is learning her way around New York and human society, with the help of an old Jewish rabbi who recognized her for what she is.
The Jinni, on the other hand, has been bound in a bottle for close to a thousand years, and is released accidentally by an Arab tinsmith. He is also learning about New York and human society, but where the Golem is coming at it from a place of innocence, he is jaded and old. The two eventually meet, recognizing each other for non-human, and begin a wary friendship built on their mutual lack of needing to sleep and hatred of boredom.
As the novel progresses, their lives begin to intertwine in unexpected ways, and we learn more about their histories from flashbacks; in the Golem’s case, the flashbacks are of her creator’s life, since we see the beginning of her own at the start of the novel.
As the novel progresses, it builds up momentum until it seems an unstoppable force heading to its surprising conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and find myself surprised it was the author’s first. It brushed on philosophical questions, moral questions, societal norms – and all of it so naturally. The book delved into human nature and the nature of free will, with both main characters unsure of their own capability for free will for different reasons, and fighting those very limitations on their individuality.
I discovered in a Q&A on Wecker’s website that she is Jewish and her husband is Arab-American, which explains partly why she was able to blend the two cultures’ mythologies so easily (and to wonderful effect!) in this book.
I’ve been having wonderful luck with debut novels lately, I wonder how long that can hold out?
From the inner cover of The Golem and the Jinni:
“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 names. 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 who 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.”