In her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, Helen Wecker crafts a tale of two magical creatures who find themselves amongst the large mass of immigrants in 19th century New York City. Chava is a golem crafted from clay, recently created because golems are naturally bound to servitude and her master wanted an obedient wife. When her master dies at sea, Chava finds herself in the city all alone.
Meanwhile, a tinsmith in Little Syria is busily fixing a copper flask when a young man suddenly leaps out of it. The man reveals himself as Ahmad, a jinni entirely made of fire. Ahmad had been trapped in the flask for the past century and was now finally set free by the tinsmith. Given their newfound freedom, Chava and Ahmad must try to settle into human guises and make a living for themselves in this strange new city. Chava takes up a position at a bakery, and a kind Rabbi who knows about her supernatural nature gives her housing. Ahmad voluntarily works for the tinsmith who freed him to keep himself occupied.
One fateful night, Chava and Ahmad cross paths. As soon as they meet, they immediately recognize each other’s magical nature and are warily drawn to each other. Due to this curiosity and the relief in knowing they are not the only supernatural beings in the city, Chava and Ahmad begin to take nightly strolls together and form a tentative friendship. They talk about their struggles in fitting in to this human society.
Ahmad is an ancient, restless creature who grows impatient each day with what he perceives as the monotony around him. He longs to go back to the desert and be with his own people, but he must first try to find a way to return to his full original form. Chava, however, is extremely new to the world and is deeply overwhelmed by it. She throws herself into her work to build a routine and be able to serve others. Despite their differences, Chava and Ahmad both find it easy to speak freely with each other, even though it leads to heated arguments. The main questions explored in the novel arise through conversations. What does it mean to be a human being? How does one control primitive instincts while assimilating to a new world? Is there a middle ground between free will and submission to fate?
As the novel unfolds, Chava and Ahmad interact with a variety of background characters who each carry their own vibrant stories. There is Mahmoud the ice cream maker, a long dead Bedouin girl, an heiress named Sophia, and a cunning wizard named Schaalman. All of these characters seem unrelated to each other at first, but their story-lines all eventually tie together through unexpected and sometimes dramatic revelations. Wecker does an excellent job at building up the story’s main conflict and resolving it in a refreshing and inventive way. The lives of Chava and Ahmad remain extremely intriguing to the very end of the book, but the author still gives us a satisfying amount of closure with their fate.
As an avid reader of fantasy novels, I can attest to the fact that most of them are mainly based on European/Western legends and mythology. That’s why I found The Golem and the Jinni to be a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre; it focuses on magical elements from other cultures that haven’t been nearly as ambitiously explored. Through the titular characters of The Golem and the Jinni, Wecker draws upon Jewish mysticism and Arabian mythology respectively. She takes inspiration from these stories, adding her own thoughtful ideas and interpretations into the creation of these creatures and the laws that bind them. The different narratives are neatly woven together in a “story within a story” format that reminds me quite a bit of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights. The enchantingly vivid imagery and careful world-building are reminiscent as well.
The Golem and the Jinni is a gripping and dazzling tale filled with magic, adventure, and danger. However, it is also much more than that. It is a book that raises profoundly philosophical questions about faith, culture, society, and most importantly, the immigrant experience. Even though Chava and Ahmad are powerful magical creatures, they are also immigrants in an overwhelming city. Throughout the course of their experiences, they both must figure out how to stay true to their roots while they attempt to create a new life for themselves in this city they now hesitantly call home.
-Contributed by Grusha Singh