Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel by Helene Wecker

Fantasy and magic are not topics I normally enjoy. But this is a marvelous story about a golem (a clay figure brought to life through some ancient Jewish spell) and a jinni (a magical fire figure of Arabian fairy tale fame - think Aladdin) who meet in New York in the 1890's after having been brought to life by their various masters and spell binders. Their relationship blossoms as they come to realize that each recognizes the other's true composition.  They come to depend on each other even as they distrust the world at large.

The Golem was programmed by her master (now dead) to be able to read thoughts of others around her, and to be a wife but there doesn't seem to be a husband available since the master is dead.  A wise old Rabbi deduces her true identify, takes her in and tries to help her acclimate to society.

The Jinni has been trapped for over 1000 years in a metal flask and is released when a New York tinsmith rubs the vessel which has been brought to him to repair.  The tinsmith is Catholic, and there are wonderful religious discussions that take place in this area of New York where little Syria abuts the Jewish ghetto, and members of each community interact, adding another layer of richness to the story.

Helene Wecker deftly weaves Jewish and Syrian folklore, present and past incidents, historical period settings, exquisite descriptions of human emotion and religious traditions, into a story of love, promises made and broken, and makes the reader believe that this magical tale of loneliness, love, longing to belong, failure to assimilate and ultimately respect for diversity is something that actually might have happened....or could happen....or should have happened.

The reader easily slips into believing in the humaness of these characters, rooting for them to overcome the limitations of their construction - golems don't need to sleep for instance, and find eating rather boring and almost painful. Jinnis must avoid the rain, or their inner fire will be doused. The scene of the jinni trying to carry an umbrella whilst walking with the Golem is priceless.

Make no mistake, this is no simple fairy tale. There are fantastic characters who change identities and forms over the centuries and keep the reader (and the other characters) guessing as to their true identify and intentions. There are scenes from past lives in the Arabian desert.  These interactions with humans are even more interesting, as are the predicaments that constantly threaten to end the current existence(s) of the Golem and the Jinni.

A five out of five star read.  This is a praiseworthy debut work.  I can't wait to see what Ms. Wecker produces next.

Many thanks to Harper for the review copy in connection with the Maine Readers Choice award.

Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker
Publisher: Harper (2013), Hardcover, 496 pages
Genre: Magical fantasy; historical fiction
Subject: Religious and folklore traditions
Setting: New York, Arabia
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It's being considered for the 2013 Maine Readers Choice Award


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