Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker, is an amazing debut novel that blends fantasy, fable and historical fiction. The author combines the cultural legends of both Hasidic and Arabian lore as she spins a tale about a golem (a creature made of clay) and a jinni (a being made of fire) who meet in New York in 1899. The year is significant because it marked one of the peaks of European immigration to the United States. The area of New York where the story takes place (now the financial district) contained both Jewish and Syrian enclaves. These sections were insular and Yiddish and Arabic were spoken exclusively. Peddling was the most common trade. English was learned by the children of these immigrants, who, like all first generation Americans, helped their parents navigate the ways of a new world.

Wecker has written a fable that is as much about religious and cultural identity as it is about Jewish and Arab folklore. Like many immigrants around them, Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the jinni) are new arrivals to this teeming area of New York. Chava was made by a rabbi in Prussia who was attracted to the dark side of Hasidism. Wecker does not spare us scenes of blatant and violent anti-semitism that in part created this evil rabbi. The rabbi was paid handsomely for the golem by a man who was going to be her master and husband. But he dies on the ship to New York and the golem is left on her own. Not only is she new to New York, she is new to human life. She is additionally burdened by the gift of sensing the desires of others. 

Likewise, the jinny was captured by an unscrupulous wizard and imprisoned in a bottle for a thousand years. He is accidentally released by a smith while repairing an heirloom. Unlike the golem, the jinni is capricious and free-spirited; living in one place is abhorrent to him. Both share a sense of alienation and loneliness aggravated by the fact that they require no sleep. What does one do while everyone else sleeps? Wandering the streets is one solution which proves to be the literary device Wecker uses to bring her two protagonist together.

What is unique about The Golem and the Jinni, aside from the whole book, is the way its author deals with themes of time, multiculturalism, immigrant experience, and freedom vs. self-determination. Throughout the book, Wecker grapples with the concept of free will. After all, a golem lacks a free will and a jinni lacks a conscience. But can these qualities be acquired through the experience of human kindness?

Helene Wecker grapples with these questions while giving the reader a view of daily life for the first Jewish and Arab immigrants in New York at the turn of the century. Through her evocative writing, we see two cultures with a shared history that is a peculiar American experience. The reader is completely immersed in the fates of these two supernatural beings--creatures imbued with human elements that allow us to empathize with them. The other characters in the book are equally interesting, and here to, the reader is fully engaged in the subplots. The author ties these disparate lives together in what can only be described as a tour de force.

The Golem and the Jinni is a must-read for those interested in mideast cultures, fantasy, or historical fiction. It is impossible to put down. 484 pages later, I was sad to leave these characters behind.

For a wonderful interview of the author visit Youtube and watch Barbara Hoffert of Library Journal question this amazing writer.  The interview is 30 minutes and can be found here.

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