The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel
“The Golem and the Jinni is recommended to adults who enjoy a good story and have a childlike sense of make-believe.”
Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni is a fairy tale for grown ups that combines historical fiction and paranormal fantasy in a novel of ideas that is also a tearful love story and a suspenseful page-turner.
It’s hard enough to master any one or two of these genres, but for the most part Ms. Wecker pulls it off in interwoven narratives featuring an impressive cast of characters set in late 19th century lower Manhattan’s Jewish and Arab immigrant neighborhoods with side trips to Danzig (then part of Germany but now in Poland) and the 10th century Bedouins of the Syrian desert.
The book’s period details and local color will appeal to historical fiction readers, and fantasy fiction readers will appreciate how she imaginatively animates her supernatural title characters albeit in ways that appear influenced as much by recent vampire fiction as by elements of both Jewish and Arab folklore. Unfortunately her knowledge of theology is weak as is her Hebrew (the plural of bar mitzvah is b’nei mitzvah, not bar mitzvot).
Our story begins in 1899 in Danzig where unattractive failed businessman Otto Rotfeld decides to emigrate to America and hires an unscrupulous kabbalist (an elderly ne’er do-well rabbinic seminary drop out) to build him a female golem to wed since no human woman wants him. Traditional golems are male, stupid, obedient, and “built for protection and brute force . . .” Rotfeld requests and receives a female golem who is intelligent, curious, chaste, can pass for human and can be animated and destroyed by incantations. She can also discern the unspoken emotions of people nearby (like Sookie Stackhouse in HBO’s True Blood).
On the transatlantic voyage a lonely Rotfeld animates her just days before his appendix bursts and he dies. The golem arrives in New York a widow, evades immigration officials, and finds her way to the Lower East Side where a kindly retired rabbi discerns what she is, becomes her mentor, names her Chava, and finds her a job in a bakery and a room in a rooming house. She meets the rabbi’s secular social worker nephew who becomes enamored of her.
Chava learns to ignore the cacophony of human emotions surrounding her on the crowded streets yet knows what bakery customers want before they do. Since golems don’t sleep, and in 1899 women of good repute don’t roam the streets after dark unescorted, to occupy herself at night she takes in sewing.
At the same time in Little Syria on Manhattan’s lower west side (today’s Financial District and Tribeca) a tinsmith named Boutros Arbeely receives a very old flask to repair. While he solders it a jinni—who was held captive in the flask for a millennium and was already two hundred years old when an evil wizard captured him—emerges wearing an iron cuff that keeps him in human form.
Arbeely names him Ahmad, and since Ahmad is a natural metal smith able to heat, melt, and shape metals other than iron (copper, bronze, brass, tin) with his bare hands, Arbeely hires him as an assistant and finds him lodging. In his free time Ahmad explores Manhattan and has various adventures including a liaison with a wealthy heiress.
Already we see similarities and differences between our elemental title characters. Golems, made of clay, are earthy and obedient, and Chava is also a prude. Jinnis are hedonistic, adventurous free spirits made of fire, and can insinuate themselves in the minds of humans via dreams. Neither sleeps, and both can comprehend, speak, read, and write any human language.
After each character’s narrative is independently developed they eventually meet and recognize each other as clandestine non-human outsiders within human society. And as non-humans locked in human form they contemplate what it means to be human.
In Ahmad’s company Chava explores Manhattan at night mostly on foot but also skipping across rooftops, and the two engage in philosophical discussions—freedom vs. captivity, free will vs. obedience, the gratifications of satisfying one’s own vs. fulfilling others’ desires—in which they begin to appreciate the other’s perspective but also become aware of their differing natures and temperaments.
As each becomes more like the other their characters develop depth mirroring the cultural give and take between immigrant minorities and the host population that absorbs them.
These night scenes alternate with diurnal episodes in their respective neighborhoods featuring the title characters and various supporting characters, flashbacks to Ahmad’s interactions with the Bedouins in 10th century Syria before his capture and the old world backstories of the kabbalist and a disabled Arab physician turned ice-cream vendor.
In the second half of the novel Ms. Wecker combines these various subplots with increasing drama and suspense leading to a conclusion sufficiently moving that readers will forgive her reliance on supernatural plot devises.
The Golem and the Jinni is recommended to adults who enjoy a good story and have a childlike sense of make-believe.