5.19.2013

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

The Golem and Jinni
The immigrant experience is a familiar one in historical fiction. It's the narrative of thousands of people picking up stakes and crossing the wide Atlantic Ocean to create new lives in America. Everyone brings their grand dreams of a new life. But Helene Wecker gives us a new twist to the tale in The Golem and the Jinni. Instead of the protagonists fleeing an old life with hopes of a new, our heroes find themselves in America much to their surprise. One of them, who technically comes from a shtetl near Danzig (modern Gdańsk), could be said to have been born on the journey. She's a golem, created to be the wife of a man who dies of appendicitis shortly after waking her. The other, a jinni, is freed from a flask after a thousand years of imprisonment by a Syrian tinsmith. Wecker shows us the challenge of creating a new life through the lens of two characters figuring out who they are and who they want to be. Wecker brings turn of the Twentieth century New York to life, showing us the journeys and experiences of the characters around Chava and Ahmad.

The golem, who walked ashore after jumping ship to avoid customs and Ellis Island, has a bit of luck when a very learned rabbi recognizes her for what she is and takes her in. Because she doesn't have a master (golems are traditionally bound to someone to give them purpose), the rabbi helps her disguise her true nature and finds her a job at a local bakery. He names her Chava, for the Hebrew word for life. Chava is constantly worried about making mistakes because she does not need to eat or sleep or take breaks. She can also hear the unspoken desires and wishes of everyone else around her. It's her nature to want to help, even if what a person silently wishes isn't what they should have.

As Chava settles uneasily into her American life, in Little Syria, a tinsmith gets a commission to fix an heirloom copper flask. But when he cuts away a decorative band on the flask, he releases a nameless jinni. The jinni is furious, especially when he discovers that he's not completely free. An unbreakable iron bracelet keeps him from exercising his full powers. It doesn't help that he can't get revenge on the wizard who put him in the flask has been dead for centuries.

The jinni, dubbed Ahmad for lack of anything better, and Chava learn to live within their limits. This would have been interesting on its own, but Wecker complicates the story for the two friends by having Chava's creator also arrive in America. Yehudah Schaalman is a twisted man, who has bent the teachings of Judaism and the Kabbalah and hundreds of years of mysticism in a quest for power and immortal life. He believes that Chava and Ahmad have that secret, and he's willing to destroy them to find out what it is.

The Golem and the Jinni was a joy to read.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds really good. I'm reading one called Loki's Wolves for the kidlit blog I contribute to, and it's more of the same Percy Jackson-esque stuff, but with Norse gods. And I'm all for it, but I want more with the actual gods and heroes -- basically more like American Gods. This sounds like it might fill the bill.

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