Happy Friday everyone,
I’ve recently finished a wonderful book, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. I heard about it a few months ago and thought that I might read it some time and as soon as I started reading, I regretted that I didn’t pick it up earlier ;). Warning: This isn’t just a novel with magical elements in it, it’s a great take on late 19th century immigration to the U.S.!
Summary provided by HarperCollins¹:
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 natures. 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 whose 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.
Helene Wecker’s novel about two unusual immigrants is mainly set in New York City around 1900 and she takes you right there. In The Golem and the Jinni, you’ll visit cramped, stuffy tenements as well as stately, airy mansions. You will explore a city that you’ve probably never seen before. Ms. Wecker has a gift for setting. I only wished there would have been a map somewhere in the book to place all the streets and to get a feeling for the distances the characters traveled.
The novel follows the two main characters, a female golem and a male jinni, on their search for freedom and happiness. Chava, the golem, is new to life. She learns fast and adapts to the Jewish immigrant society quickly. Her greatest fear is to hurt someone and so Chava stays wary. Ahmad, the jinni, was free to do whatever he wanted and now he is trapped in human form. His self-conscious and impatient character makes him roam New York City night after night. While Chava wants to be like anyone else, Ahmad only wants to be free again to return home to Syria.
In my opinion, these two main characters are the archetypal immigrants. They are very different from the rest of the people already living in the U.S.. Chava comes to stay and to make a living. She wants to fit in and still has to learn everything to survive. Ahmad is in the U.S. with the goal to return to Syria as soon as he is free again. He resembles those immigrants who came to America to work and make money just to return home again, although lots of them stayed in the end.
As you can see, The Golem and the Jinni is a novel about immigration and different cultures in New York City around 1900, but this book has even more to offer. It is a book about friendship and trust and it’s a riveting read.