Book Review

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

A-

Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers 2013
ISBN: 978-0-06-211083-1
Genre: Historical: American

Book The Golem and the Jinni The Golem and the Jinni is a haunting, beautiful historical fantasy.  It's not a romance, but it has a love story that sneaks up on you.  In a way, the whole book is about learning how to love.

The story begins in 1899.  A man commissions a life-like golem to be created for him with the expectation that it be his wife.  He smuggles the golem onto a ship headed from Europe to Ellis Island.  En route, he wakes the golem, but a few days later he dies, leaving the golem alone and confused in New York City.  A rabbi sees the golem wandering the streets, realizes what she is, and takes her in.  He names her Chava and helps her learn how to live without a master.

Meanwhile, in a New York neighborhood called Little Syria, a metalworker is astonished when he is repairing a jar and inadvertently releases a Jinni.  The jinni is freed from the jar but wears an iron bracelet that shows that he is still bound to a wizard.  He has lost much of his memory and many of his powers, and is trapped in human form.  The metalworker takes him on as an assistant, and names him Ahmad.

Most of the book involves the separate lives of Chava and Ahmad as they struggle to adjust to their new lives.  Chava has no master, and because she is imbued with a deep need to serve a master, she struggles with a compulsion to meet the needs of everyone around her.  She is also terrified that if she feels too threatened, or thinks that someone else is threatened, she may become uncontrollably violent, which is an extra problem because she is very strong.  While Chava is almost crippled by her sense of responsibility, Ahmad feels none at all.  He craves freedom above all else.  He does what he wants, when he wants, with no sense of how his actions affect other people.  He's not malicious, but he's incredibly oblivious, impulsive, and selfish.

I loved this book, but not so much for the love story.  I loved the mythologies, the settings, and the characters.  The neighborhoods were incredibly detailed and vivid and interesting.  The cultural and religious communities felt real and fascinating.  I love books that let me see into another world, and this book gave me that feeling many times.  The characters were all mesmerizing.  I felt like I was in each setting, meeting these real people.

The reason this book gets an 'A-' instead of 'A+' is that a lot of the book's resolution involves Ahmad's capacity for change.  I felt that he developed this capacity rather abruptly and I didn't fully believe in it.  Maybe this is due to my own cynicism, or maybe the author was just a little too good at creating an amoral character.  I did like it that Ahmad's development made me think, and made me want to read the book again to see what clues I had missed along the way.  I also liked the idea that both Chava and Ahmad need more balance in their lives, with each being the other's opposite.

As a historical novel, this book earns an 'A+'.  As a love story, my initial response is that it earns a 'B' – but I keep thinking about it, and marveling at its gradual, subtle development, and that haunting, thoughtful quality is making me bump the grade up every time I think about it again.  I guess I'll have to re-read it (yay!).  This quote sums up the romantic element, as well as, in a broader sense, the entire struggle of Chava and Ahmad to find their own inner balance, and the delicate, fragile optimism of the book:

Maybe there was some middle ground to be had, a resting place between passion and practicality.  She had no idea how they would find it; in all likelihood they'd have to carve it for themselves out of thin air.  And any path they chose would not be an easy one.  But perhaps she could allow herself to hope.


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  1. 1

    Oh this sounds really good. Not really a love story but good.

  2. 2
    Lynnd says:

    This sounds really good. Is she a debut author?

    I’m putting it on my wishlist so that I will remember it if the price drops to something reasonable (It’s over $16.00 for the e-book in Canada).

  3. 3
    SB Sarah says:

    @Lynnd – Yes, this is her first novel.

    We don’t often review brand new hardcovers that are only a little bit romance, so I wanted to tell you how the review came to be. I found a few write-ups of this book (It was the front page of the New York Times’ book section a bit ago) and thought, Carrie would love this book. I am glad I was right – it’s nervewracking to recommend a book to someone, even if you think you’re right.

    Isn’t it funny, also, how the prices of hardcover ebooks (i.e. ebooks released alongside a hardcover that is expensive) are so shocking? I hope, if you want to read this book but the price is way out of orbit, you can find a copy in your library. It’s received so much attention I’m sure librarians have purchased some copies of it.

  4. 4
    Lynnd says:

    I’m really happy that you had Carrie review the book – it sounds right up my alley.  I have ablsolutely no objections to adding books like this to my wishlist.  Please carry on!

    My comment about the price was not intended as any complaint about the reivew or the fact that the book is a hardcover.  It was just general bitching about the price that the publishers are charging for ebooks issued alongside of hardcovers.  As a matter of principle, I just won’t pay that price for an e-book (especially one with DRM).  Sometimes if it’s a book I want (like this one), by an untried author, I’ll put it on my wishlist and wait until the price comes down (when I read print books, except in rare circumstances for my favourite authors, I waited for the paperback to come out at a reasonable price).  Of course the problem with that approach is that by the time the price drops, other books have caught my eye, and I wonder why it was on my wishlist :-).  Other times I will get the book from the library if they order it – that isn’t always certain with budget cuts, the ebook restrictions for libraries and debut authors.  Had the ebook been $10.99 or $11.99, I might actually have purchased it right up front – which would been good for the author and the publisher.

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    @Lynnd: complain away! I didn’t take your comment as a complaint that the review was present. This book is a bit outside what we normally review and I wanted to explain to everyone why.

    But oh, sing it, sister on the hardcover-level price of ebooks when there’s DRM. FEH.

  6. 6

    This sounds awesome and right up my alley.

    But $14.99 is a bit much for me to drop on a debut novel. o.O I’ll have to keep an eye out for when the price goes down!

  7. 7
    Nikki says:

    I loved this book. Read it as an arc a few months ago.

  8. 8
    Catherine says:

    Oh, I just read this book last week, too!  It’s a very compelling book, somehow – even though it moves fairly slowly, it drags you in and won’t let go of you.  Very good writing and a very well-realised world.

    I was also amused by the way the Golem and the Jinni, by virtue of their mythological natures, also inhabit what I think of as an extreme / idealised form of their gender stereotype – Chava, who is female and made of clay, is practical and responsible and embedded into her community and really wants to submerge herself in the needs of others, while Ahmad, male and made of fire, is solitary and ambitious and amoral, with no patience for the everyday, practical things. 

    While there are other versions of masculine and feminine ‘characteristics’, I found it interesting that the two creatures chosen did fall into these types so well.  Something to contemplate, at any rate, as is the fact that they really do have to meet somewhere in the middle to function in a way that works for themselves, each other, and those around them.

    Also, for those commenting on the price, for once in my life I have to recommend the hardcover – it’s a truly beautiful book to look at and touch – the pages are dyed deep indigo at the edges, the cover is blue and gold, the font is beautifully chosen, and the paper feels lovely.  I don’t usually get all excited about the look and feel of a book, but this is something special, and it invites the slow, contemplative reading that this book encourages.

    Catherine

  9. 9
    Karin says:

    It’s a fascinating and original idea for a story, and based on Catherine’s description of the hardcover book, it sounds like it would make a nice gift for the right person.

  10. 10
    Rebecca says:

    Saw this in a bookstore recently and almost bought it…will have to go back now.

    Catherine – have you read the gradual development of the golems in Terry Pratchett’s novels?  He has a wonderful subplot in Making Money about how a golem given a female name and dressed in an apron gradually morphs from a completely gender-neutral being into a stereotypical “female” role, reading women’s magazines and developing a crush on her boss.  (“Feet of Clay” has a much more profound and subtle theme about a golem who is a thing gradually becoming a human.  Without giving too much away, the first time Dorfl is called “Mr. Dorfl” I always cry.)  If you’re interested in the golem novels, read “Feet of Clay,” “Going Postal” and “Making Money” in that order.

  11. 11

    Carrie S. and Catherine, I agree with everything you both wrote! I just read this book too, and I don’t want to give it back to the library! It’s so beautiful, art object in itself, with that gorgeous, evocative cover and those blue pages, as beautiful as one of the jinni’s little silver filigree birds.

    I felt like Chava was a perfect metaphor for all those immigrant women, coming from their lives of labor and drudgery in Eastern Europe, then suddenly freed to become whatever they wanted to be. How liberating—and intimidating—that must have been! I thought Helene Wecker really nailed that.

    It took me longer to figure out what Ahmad might symbolize—this is my take on it. The Jinni represents all those artists who make their way to New York, trying to forget some painful thing that made them artists in the first place. They sleep around with everything that moves, and then one day, that painful thing they thought they left far behind catches up with them again.

    This was a wonderful, gentle book. Like a new kind of fairy tale.

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