The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Published: HarperCollins, Blue Door (2013)
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award
Awards Won: Mythopoeic Award
Helene Wecker published her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, in April of last year, and it has already garnered quite a lot of positive attention. In a section after the end of the novel, Wecker describes the story of how this novel came to be. While she started her career working as a writer in marketing and communications, she realized that not trying her hand at becoming a fiction writer might one day be her biggest regret. The Golem and the Jinni is a work of many years, inspired at first by her and her husband’s family histories as children of Jewish and Arab American immigrants, respectively. An interesting Q&A about the novel can be found here, on her website.
I would describe The Golem and the Jinni, which takes place in late-1800s New York, as a pleasantly sedate story. The physical and cultural setting felt very solid to me, and I enjoyed the portrayal of daily city life from various perspectives. At first I was a little confused at the patient care with which some seemingly minor characters were introduced, typically with a life history explaining how they came to be the person they are today. However, all of these minor characters eventually had a role to play in the story, as the pieces slowly fell into place for the larger plot that tied the story together. I enjoyed how neatly everything came together in the end, though the climax risked feeling a little too rushed, and the coincidences a little too convenient.
From my perspective, the greatest strength of the story is in its exploration of the characters and their relationships with one another. Aside from the supernatural entities of the title, the communities they inhabited were also filled with memorable characters. There are really too many to list here, but some of my favorites were the kind, troubled Rabbi who took the golem in, and the afflicted former doctor known to others in the Syrian neighborhood as “Ice Cream Saleh”. Even the villain, though he was portrayed as irredeemable, had understandable motivations and was capable of good as well as evil. Having so many distinct, believable characters helped to give the world an open, expansive feeling, and I felt that their presence also helped to define the communities that Wecker set out to portray.
While I appreciated the side characters, I think that the most memorable characters for me were the golem, Chava, and the jinni, Ahmad. The two characters were wonderfully complementary, but also had enough in common that it seemed natural for them to gravitate toward one another. For instance, they are both ‘born’ into a community where they mostly belong, but where they still feel like an outsider. I don’t have the experience of being the child of an immigrant, but I wondered whether that last might have been meant to portray the sense of belonging/not-belonging that someone in that situation might feel.
Beyond the similarities of their situations, their personalities are balanced like yin and yang. Chava is able to sense the needs of others, so she is hyper-aware of her connection to the people around her and of the effects on others of her every action and word. Ahmad, on the other hand, is used to thinking of himself as separate, and rarely considers what effects his actions might have on anyone. Chava doubts her own decisions and longs for guidance, while Ahmad typically disregards the guidance of others and longs to direct his own path. Even their situations are inverted: Chava is a being that is designed for servitude, but who finds herself unexpectedly free, while Ahmad is a being that is intended to be free, who finds himself unexpectedly bound. These differences in situation and temperament led to some very interesting discussions about social responsibility, free will, and religion, where both of them were able to learn from the perspective of the other. Their experiences, both separate and together, helped them both to grow beyond what either might have expected at the beginning of the story.
Altogether, I think The Golem and the Jinni is an award-worthy novel, and a truly excellent debut from a new talent. The story is a rather slow-moving one, focused largely on the daily life of two supernatural beings in Jewish and Syrian communities of late-1800’s New York City. The novel is also shaped by a larger, magical plot that slowly surfaces as the novel progresses, in which all the characters eventually play a part. However, I think my favorite part of the novel was in the strong development of its many characters, and in their interactions with one another and their communities. I look forward to seeing what Helene Wecker will publish next!