I actually finished reading The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker before Christmas, but have not had a chance to sit down and write about it until now… and I have been looking forward to writing about it because this book is wonderful. From the first chapter I was enchanted by Wecker’s language and drawn into the story – first charming, then thrilling. Her characters are as real as the flesh-and-blood people I meet (even the characters that don’t have flesh or blood!) and woven throughout are themes on religion, belief, and belonging that resonate soundly. I was captivated until the very last.
The book opens with a man from a late 19th century Polish village who decides he wants a perfect wife and approaches a nearby kabbalist to see if he will make a life-like golem for him. Once obtaining the golem, he immediately leaves for America, but dies on the journey shortly after waking his clay wife. The golem makes it to New York City, and is taken under the wing of a rabbi who recognizes what she is and helps her choose the name Chava. Although she is naive due to her youth and vulnerable due to the spell that woke her and causes her to have an overarching goal to please those around her, Chava still has a distinct personality – curious, but not flighty. She has a sort of solidness that belies her inexperience. Eventually she meets a jinni, accidentally released from his oil flask by a tinsmith in Little Syria, who goes by Ahmad. Ahmad is in many ways a foil to Chava – his personality is restless, his outlook jaded, and he is hundreds of years old – although he does not remember how he became imprisoned. Chava and Ahmad take to walking around the City together at night (since neither of them need sleep) and talking about the city, God, and their experiences.
The plot progresses at a steady pace and with each development I felt a thrill of joy or apprehension for the characters. The ending is intense enough to have me on the edge of my seat while reading, and the finale appropriately bittersweet, yet hopeful.
Chava and Ahmad’s neighborhoods are fleshed out with full, enjoyable characters that are jewels of storytelling; I often felt that Maryam, Anna, Michael, and Ice Cream Saleh were all people I had met in real life – as though they could step off the page and continue to talk and react to their surroundings even without their creator’s input – much as Chava herself can without her own creator’s involvement. I did not realize until halfway through the book that, while other people refer to Chava and Ahmad by their names, the author herself does not. It’s a stark reminder that the two of them do not really feel that they fit into the societies that have adopted them.
The aspect of the novel however, that finalized it as exemplary are some of the ruminations on God and religion. At one point, atheist Michael finds himself in the synagogue; “They chanted the psalms and praises and as always, the rhythm fastened itself to his heartbeat. It seemed unfair that the prayers could affect him this way, against his will; that he could scoff at the sentiments, yet find himself mouthing along.” It echoes a conversation earlier between Ahmad and Chava:
“So it’s just stories, now. And perhaps the humans did create their God. But does that make him less real? Take this arch. They created it, now it exists.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t grant wishes,” he said, “It doesn’t do anything.”
“True,” she said, “but I look at it and I feel a certain way. Maybe that is its purpose.”
Michael does not believe in God, but the rituals and symbols of his former religion still affect him deeply, as they did when he still believed. It is an experience that speaks strongly to my own. The book also echoes American Gods by Neil Gaiman in a way, with an emphasis on belief itself as a force to shape reality.
This book is what every fantasy novel should be: exquisitely written, engaging, somehow more real than real life, and wrapped up with that hard-to-pin characteristic that makes you come away from it thinking new thoughts and seeing the world in a new light. It is as close to perfect as a book may be.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐