Bottom Line: Simple but powerful
“Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York Harbor. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.Struggling to make their way in this strange new place, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their neighbors while masking their true natures. Surrounding them is a community of immigrants: the coffeehouse owner Maryam Faddoul, a pillar of wisdom and support for her Syrian neighbors; the solitary ice cream maker Saleh, a damaged man cursed by tragedy; the kind and caring Rabbi Meyer and his beleaguered nephew, Michael, whose Sheltering House receives newly arrived Jewish men; the adventurous young socialite Sophia Winston; and the enigmatic Joseph Schall, a dangerous man driven by ferocious ambition and esoteric wisdom.Meeting by chance, the two creatures become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.”
Thoughts: On the surface, Ahmad and Chava are like any one of the numerous immigrants flooding into New York City as the century comes to a close. Their true natures, though, are anything but natural. Born as a Jinn, Ahmad was ensnared by a magician over 1000 years ago, and it is a chance accident that allows him to escape the prison of the flask in which he was contained. While Ahmad’s true being is fire, Chava is much more down-to-earth, literally, for she is a golem – a mystical creature of obedience made of clay. Both find themselves set adrift in 1899 New York City without friend or master to guide them. Their eventual friendship provides the connection each both unconsciously seek, but it leads to its own complications.
The beauty of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni lies in the exploration of humanity and its various definitions. The entire novel centers on Chava’s and Ahmad’s ability to assimilate into this unusual world. Like their human counterparts, they too are searching for their true purpose, struggling with concepts like free choice as well as cause-and-effect. Their experiences and reactions are no less profound for their mystical origins, which is a testament to Ms. Wecker’s ability to humanize these two very non-human beings.
While the main focus of the novel is the characters, one cannot ignore the vibrant backdrop of New York City at the turn of the century. With its daily influx of new immigrants and diverse but strictly delineated ethnic neighborhoods, one could not imagine a more appropriate setting for the story. Ms. Wecker brings back the fears of immigration, the pressures of Ellis Island, the difficulties found when mixing cultures, and the cities’ extremes. The city actually becomes another character, slyly exerting its influence on its main characters without truly overshadowing them.
George Guidall is always an excellent narrator, and here is no different. He has an affability about him that is enjoyable, but he still can instill creepy and menacing when necessary. His performances tend to be more emotionally subdued but still appropriately intense. His voice is pleasant and always professional, allowing the words to speak for themselves.
The Golem and the Jinni is beautifully written and quite charming. Chava and Ahmad never lose their child-like innocence, making their struggles to act human all the more endearing. Their human interactions are as diverse as the cross-sections of New York they inhabit, showing the good, the bad, and the ugly in each. The story builds slowly, building each character and setting carefully, while the undercurrent of tension driving a reader’s interest is a subtle pulse underlying the characters’ individual stories. The Golem and the Jinni is a great, old-fashioned, simple story in which the action takes a backseat to the protagonists, where the story unfolds at its own pace, and where the mirror it holds up to the face of humanity creates some surprising and always thought-provoking reflections.