Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker
HarperCollins, 2013

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

In the beginning, a sickly Jewish man breathes an incantation on a ship destined for New York City, and his golem wakes. And he saw that the creation was good. Then he dies and severs the master-servant connection with the golem, leaving her open to the wishes and emotions of everyone. At the same time, deep within New York City, a tinsmith undoes scrollwork on a copper flask and releases a 1,000-year-old jinni. He has no memory of his capture—only hatred for the wizard who clapped the iron cuff around his wrist and stuffed him into the flask. Stuck there in 1899, the two beings must learn how to survive, discover a new purpose, identify a sense of self, and maintain secrecy concerning their supernatural abilities.

Thus, the stage is set for Helen Wecker’s beautiful debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni. She tackles the question of what a conversation would sound like between two entities bound to servitude. When the two finally cross paths, each tries to understand—but clashes with—the other’s perspective. Wecker put extensive thought into Chava and Ahmad’s characterization and history. Each one gradually develops a sense of humanity. Readers are proud of Chava’s minor successes of passing as human, and her fascinating discovery and understanding of her own unnatural nature. But Ahmad must act human and, try as he might to remain separate, humanity slips into his subconscious actions. Wecker always informs readers when this occurs.

“He leaned on the railing, propping his chin in his hand; [Chava] wondered if he knew how human he looked” (267).

“The Jinni let out a hollow laugh. Then he leaned forward and put his head in his hands. It was a startlingly human gesture, full of weakness” (316).

Compared with the conceited confidence of a jinni, human gestures seem to show weakness or doubt. Ahmad hates to fail, but Chava seems content to adopt flaws. For example, when she begins working at a bakery, she realizes that her movements are too quick and precise.

“…The Golem wasn’t nearly so certain of herself as she appeared. Passing as human was a constant strain. After only a few weeks she looked back on that first day, when she’d worked six hours without stopping, and wondered how she could have been so careless, so naïve. It was all too easy for her to be caught up in the rhythm of the bakery, the thumps of fists on dough and the ringing of the bell over the door. Too easy to match it, and let it run away with her. She learned to make a deliberate mistake once in a while, and space the pastries a bit more haphazardly” (122).

This passage shows how desperately Chava wants to find a normal place in life, but Ahmad doesn’t share this desire and is generally apathetic. Chava tries to embrace responsibilities and relationships, but Ahmad prefers to remain isolated from humans. They are lower beings to him, stuck in one form and incomprehensible. To Chava, they hold the key to her survival and destruction. And throughout this main plot, Wecker reveals that Ahmad was not without his flaws as a full jinni—he just wasn’t aware of them. The overall story seems to suggest that humanity is all about flaws, and to embrace them.

The Golem and the Jinni is reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book; it has a similar gradual unfolding of characterization, plot, and pacing, as well as an unprejudiced approach to religions. Some readers may think Wecker’s novel is too slow, but the story is steady and realistic, and includes various religions with an unbiased—if fantastic—view. Wecker skillfully incorporates Judaism, Christianity, Russian Orthodox, and Atheism beliefs and superstitions without conflict. The Golem and the Jinni’s existences are also well integrated. They are not attached to particular beliefs, despite the golem being created in a Jewish society. The only other servant creature Wecker could introduce would be an angel, and that one just appears as a statue. She hints that all religions are true, and to include an actual angel would claim that that only Christianity is true. The exclusion not only equalizes beliefs in the book, but also maintains the story’s logical consistency.

There are minor problems in the novel. Wecker effortlessly switches between characters’ perspectives without relying on many section breaks in narration. However, no character has a clear voice compared with each other or the narration; they are distinct by their emotions and habits only. Wecker also doesn’t designate chapters for either Chava’s world or Ahmad’s. Most of the time, plotlines and characters switch between chapters. But sometimes, chapters include both story arcs that also leap between eras. Readers become comfortable with the even switching between plots, and may pause to gain their bearings when Chava is mentioned in Ahmad’s chapter and vice versa.

Overall, Wecker’s language is mature and almost lyrical. When she describes a crescent moon as “…a rind of moon…,” readers can easily envision a thin and discolored curve in the sky. This same language pulls readers deep into each character’s emotions and lives: Ahmad’s boredom and frustration, Chava’s fear and anxiety, and the other characters’ consternation, curiosity, affection, and gratitude. When the story ends, readers will emerge from the thick Hudson River to breathe in a clear, single life again and almost miss the voices.

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