Fin-de-siècle New York City was home to a dizzying variety of people, many of whom came from other countries and settled in small immigrant communities after passing through Ellis Island. Helene Wecker’s haunting, lovely folkloric novel The Golem and the Jinni builds off an elegantly simple idea: what if these communities also brought their mythical creatures with them?
In 1899, a Jewish man named Rotfeld, disappointed in his quest for a bride, visits a local mystic and asks for a wife made from clay, one who will attend his every need and never complain.* Rotfeld departs for America with his new ‘wife’ in the luggage compartment, but after a disaster aboard the ship, the golem strides out of the water and onto the shores of New York alone. Meanwhile, a smith named Arbeely who lives in Little Syria takes on the task of repairing a humble copper flask for a neighbor–and inadvertently releases a very angry and confused jinni, who is bound with an iron cuff on his wrist and cannot remember the last thousand years.
After finding an unlikely protector in the Jewish neighborhoods of New York, the golem is given the name Chava. She pours herself into finding ways to occupy her mind and body, to give herself the work that she craves. With Rotfeld gone, Chava finds that she is able to feel all of the thoughts and wishes of the humans around her, and it takes all of her focus to shut out the cacophony and pass for human. The jinni is given the name Ahmad and Arbeely welcomes him into his shop as an apprentice. Taking Arbeely’s charity grates on the jinni, who finds humans frustratingly limited and longs to find a way to break the iron cuff and return to his full power.
This is an absolutely lovely book, one worth savoring slowly (although it’s hard to put down in its closing chapters!). Wecker’s prose is deft and descriptive without being too flowery; reading this book felt like escaping into 1899 New York City. It’s also a thought-provoking book. Along the way, the golem and the jinni both grapple with complicated questions of human nature, free will, and their own powers and limitations. While the jinni is prone to using his powers without thought for the consequences, the golem fears what will happen if she strays too far from human behavior — especially after a frightening incident that reveals her capacity for violence.
The human characters that the golem and the jinni encounter are an interesting and motley lot, mostly (though not entirely) drawn from the Jewish and Syrian neighborhoods where they live. I adored the kindly, brilliant Rabbi Avram Meyer, who becomes Chava’s closest friend in the city. Mad Saleh, or “Ice Cream Saleh” as he is known in the neighborhood, is another particularly noteworthy character — he was once a respected doctor, but an encounter with a minor demon left him unable to look at human faces without recoiling. Saleh represents what can happen to humans when their world collides with the mystical one Chava and Ahmad inhabit, and I thought he was one of the most interesting and sympathetic of the book’s human characters. My one complaint about the book was that I found the resolution of Saleh’s story somewhat unsatisfying.
That one quibble aside, if you like historical fiction or fantasy, The Golem and the Jinni belongs at the top of your must-read list. It’s one of the three best books I’ve read all year.
Rating: Buy it
* Don’t worry, the book realizes how gross Rotfeld is.