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Monday, June 24, 2013

Helene Wecker: "The Golem and the Jinni"

Author:  Helene Wecker   
Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Plot Type:  Historical Urban Fantasy    
Ratings:  Violence--3; Sensuality--2; Humor--2  
Publisher:  HarperCollins (2013)

     Primarily set in the turn-of-the-century immigrant world of New York City, the story also flashes back to the Old World to fill in the back stories of its titular leading characters, each of whom is a magical being. 

     The novel can be read on an allegorical level as a fantastical microcosm of the immigrant experience: people from vastly different cultures and religions making their tentative way in a new land and coping with each other's differences. It can also be enjoyed as a great, page-turning suspense novel, full of wondrous characters, breath-holding foreboding, and a story so well constructed that every supposed red herring actually fits neatly into its plot slot by the time the climactic ending arrives.

             SUMMARY AND REVIEW             

     Both lead charactersthe Golem and the Jinni ( aka djinn, genie)come from different parts of the world and owe the quality of their lives to a sorcerer. In the Golem's case, that sorcerer is a Jewish magus in Prussia, while the Jinni's is a wily desert wizard. 

     A golem is a creature made of clayformed by its creator to serve its master with super strength and total devotionto the point of predicting the master's needs through its empathetic powers. In the early pages of the book, this particular Golem is created as the bride of a wealthy man who is emigrating to America and wants his Golem wife to have curiosity and intelligence, traits not usually found in Golems. He also instructs the creator to "make her proper. Not...lascivious. A gentleman's wife." (p. 4) When the Golem's master dies on the ship soon after he speaks the words that bring her to life, she is bereft without someone to please. She roams the streets of New York City, unsure of what to do, uncomfortable with her freedom, and missing the security of her master's bond. Without that bond, the Golem's empathy runs wild, and she keeps trying to fulfill the myriad needs of the crowds of people on the street. "At first it nearly paralyzed her, and she hid under an awning as the desperate thoughts of the pushcart vendors and paperboys rode ahead of their shouting voices: the rent is due, my father will beat me, please somebody buy the cabbages before they spoil. It made her want to slap her hands over her ears." (p. 34) Just as she is surrounded by a hostile mob after she steals a knish to feed a hungry boy, she is rescued and then adopted by an elderly rabbi who recognizes her for what she is and hopes to keep her from harming anyone. According to legend, if a golem once loses control of its emotions, it can run amok, turning on innocents and even on its own master. A golem is inherently immortal and can be destroyed only by someone speaking the magical words designated by its creator. The rabbi finds the Golem a job in a bakery, where she wins immediate praise for her strong work ethic and for her ability to predict customers' needs before they speak.

     The handsome Jinn is also essentially immortal, but his fiery soul can be drowned by water and his powers dampened by iron. The Jinni's true form is as "insubstantial as a wisp of air, and invisible to the human eye. When in this form, he could summon winds, and ride them across the desert. But he could also take on the shape of any animal and become as solid as if he were made of muscle and bone." (p. 22) The Jinni comes to New York City trapped inside a copper flask in which he has been imprisoned for centuries. As the story moves along, we get flashbacks to the arrogant Jinni's profligate life before his capture, as he investigates human life by following desert caravans and eventually goes into the dreams of a young girlwith horrific results for both of them. When the jinni's copper flask is sent to a tinsmith for repairs, the smith is the one who accidentally sets the Jinni free. Unhappily for the Jinni, he is in human form, and the undetachable iron cuff on his wrist guarantees that he will stay that way. Since the Jinni can produce fire from his fingertips and has excellent metal-working skills, the tinsmith accepts his strange story and offers him a job.

     So...we have two creatures who are opposite in important waysearth and fire, arrogance and submission, beauty and plainnessbut alike in that they are "others," alone in a strange city with only a single human who understands what they are and who gives them a human name. The Golem becomes Chava (meaning life) and the Jinni becomes Ahmad. Other shared characteristics are intelligence and curiosity, and the two soon fall into a kind of friendship as they begin to explore the streets of New York together. The two bicker constantly as they try to bridge their differences. Here, the Golem tries to explain her nature to the Jinni: 
     "Each golem is built to serve a master. When I woke, I was already bound to mine. To his will. I heard his every thought, and I obeyed with no hesitation."
     "That's terrible," the Jinni said.
     "To  you, perhaps. To me it felt like the way things were meant to be. And when he diedwhen that connection left meI no longer had a clear purpose. Now I'm bound to everyone, if only a little. I have to fight against. it, I can't be solving everyone's wishes...If I were as independent as you wish you were, I'd feel I had no purpose at all.
     He frowned. "Were you so happy, to be ruled by another?"
     "Happy is not the word," she said. "It felt right." (p. 217)

     Chava and Ahmad do not meet until the story is a third of the way into its telling (p. 172). That fateful meeting occurs as the grief-stricken Golem, dealing with the death of her rabbi, roams through the city streets, hopelessly lost, and sees a tall man who "shone with that warm light, like a lamp shaded with gauze." The Jinni sees a tall woman who is "not human, but a living piece of earth." Each stares at the other, thinking, "What is he/she?" In one of the most beautifully written scenes in the book, they recognize each other's otherness and begin to feel a kinship.

     In the first 175 pages, we meet the Golem and the Jinni as well as a cast of characters from the human world: the tinsmith, the rabbi and his son, a mad ice cream maker, a pregnant bakery worker, a young and wealthy girl, and the magus who made the Golemall of whom play intrinsic roles as the plot unfolds, bit by bit. At the beginning, the story drowses along as we learn more and more about the Golem and the Jinni. Then, when the villain of the story arrives in New York City, the suspense begins to build and never lets up. 

     This is a terrific story that is strong both in its characterizationeven among the secondary charactersand its plot. The unhurried pace of the early chapters allows the reader to fully grasp the qualities of the primary and secondary characters. Thus when the action picks up in the later chapters, we know these characters well and can understand and empathize with them as they interact with various people and face a variety of challenges and dangers. The author's meticulous management of the complexities of the plot is masterful and mostly unpredictable. I found myself wondering just how this or that person or event could possibly play into the resolution, but it all fit together perfectlylike one of those thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles and without a single missing piece. By the end, virtually every character is put into a position in which they must make decisions as to the degree to which they will willingly submit their free will to another. The end results include both heartbreak and happinessand are always satisfying.  

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