Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"The Golem and the Jinni" by Helene Wecker

The debut novel of Helene Wecker, “The Golem and the Jinni” is a mixed bag. By that I meant it’s a historical-urban-romantic fantasy that also questioned what life really means and touches on the clash of cultures in the melting pot that is New York City.

If that sounds daunting, well…that’s because it is but don’t worry. Although this is her debut, Helene Wecker show a firm hand in her writing, giving us one of the most delightful debut in years.  

The story starts in Poland at the end of the 19th century, when a kabbalist named Yehudah Schaalman creates a golem at the request of Otto Rotfeld. Rotfeld is leaving Europe for America and decided to “commission” a new bride for himself. However Rotfeld dies during the sea voyage to New York City and the newly awakened golem, shaped like a woman, escaped alone into the unfamiliar city. A rabbi, Rabbi Meyer, takes in the golem and named her, Chava. He found her a job at a bakery and begin teaching her how to pass for a human among the Jewish population of New York.

At the same time, a tinsmith named Arbeely accidentally frees a jinni from a flask in which he has been imprisoned for centuries. With no memory of how he was subdued, the jinni is trapped in human form and takes the name of Ahmad. Living in New York’s Little Syria, he uses his natural power over fire to work at the forge while looking for a way to return to his natural form.

Chava and Ahmad eventually meet and despite (or because of) their differences become friends. The novel show Chava and Ahmad's journey as they try to live as humans and come to influence the lives of the people around them before coming to a climax when Yehudah Schaalman comes to New York.

Now I’m not usually a fan on genre-mixing, but more works like this will definitely change my mind. “The Golem and the Jinni” is one of the best rojak works you will ever find as Helene Wecker not only seamlessly weaved the different genres together, she makes you wonder why no one has ever thought of this before!

I mean two fantasy creatures during turn of the century New York? They are the ultimate immigrants in the ultimate city of immigrants at the ultimate time of immigration. That’s a great idea.   

Wecker also examined the idea of life and what being human really means. The golem and the jinni have different views on what living in a human world really means and how to do so. Chava is caring and sensitive, while Ahmad is more reckless and joyful. Taking turns, the book shows how both Chava and Ahmad dealt with the social and mental problems they face while learning to live as a human.

This is a fantasy story about immigration set in a historical accurate 19th century New York City. The premise and idea of the story is nothing sort of perfect and there must be writers out there kicking themselves for not thinking of doing this before.

Of course, the book itself has some problems. I could do without the meandering backstory of how the jinni got captured and sometimes, the historical details of the book were too much. I have no interest in the daily working of a bakery in 19th century New York and the various rules about walking in Central Park.

The twist at the end of Yehudah Schaalman being the reincarnation of the sorcerer that captured the jinni a thousand years ago was a little too convenient. It would have been better if he was another mage; sometime there is such a thing as wrapping things up too neatly.

However these problems do not change the fact that “The Golem and the Jinni” is a wonderful book. The premise is unique, the writing is elegant and the final product is great. Read it!  

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