The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker: An Enchanting and Rich Debut
Helene Wecker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, is an enchanting and historically rich tale of the New York immigrant experience, the mythical traditions of the Middle East, and the power of freedom.
New York of 1889 is a hard enough place to be an immigrant, living on the Lower East Side in Manhattan's tenements. For Chava and Ahmad, however, struggles of immigration have another layer: Chava is a golem, a mythical Jewish creature made of clay with the sole purpose of obeying a master, while Ahmad is a jinni (or genie, in the Disney context) from the Syrian dessert.
Both Chava and Ahmad struggle to adapt to the world around them that is new in more ways than one: Chava is only a few months old, brought to life on the ship over from Poland, while Ahmad is accidentally released from a copper flask after being confined for centuries. Chava, created by a sinister Rabbi to serve a master, must learn what it means to be alive, along with what it means to be a masterless golem, when her master dies minutes after bringing her to life. Her subsequent ability to hear others' desires brings a whole new level of burden to her new life, particularly because she can’t share her true nature with most. Luck brings her to Ahmad, who has taken to wandering the streets in restless fits, frustrated by his captivity in a human body. In each other, Chava and Ahmad are able to be free, and reveal their true selves. As their stories unfold, they realize their secret identities are not the only things they have in common.
Wecker provides lush details on nineteenth-century New York that will delight any New Yorker or fan of nineteenth-century America in general. Flashbacks to the Syrian Desert and Poland are also vividly portrayed and compelling, and a cast of developed side characters rounds out the story nicely. Ultimately, what struck me most about The Golem and the Jinni was how relatable this “fantasy” tale was. Chava and Ahmad are a golem and jinni, but they could be any person who finds himself in a new place, and feels robbed of his identity and voice. But as Chava and Ahmad show us, we are never as alone as we think. There are always others who share this experience, and together we create new identities, new voices, and freedom. A poignant message that this New Yorker certainly appreciated.