Review: ‘The Golem and the Jinni’ by Helene Wecker

Merry December everyone!

I may have said this before, but I adore fictional books that dive into different cultures, such as ‘Milan’, ‘Things Fall Apart’, and even very fictional novels such as ‘God of Clay’. I love how we learn about traditions, taboos, the attitudes of the people, and especially some history and religions behind it. Add two different cultures to it, and you have got an amazing historical read such as Helene Wecker’s ‘The Golem and the Jinni’.

Before I talk about the plot, I should probably explain what a golem and a jinni are. In Russian-Jewish folklore, a golem is a clay humanoid creature made by mystics to serve as slaves to a master. They can be shaped to look like an ageless man, woman, or even a child. As for a jinni, they’re beings of fire in Syrian legend who are said to be both angel and demon while roaming the desert, and can be caught in an iron oil flask (Aladdin inspiration much?).

In this novel, we follow a quiet female golem recently created named Chava, whose master died at sea on their voyage to 1899 New York City. Masterless and longing for a purpose, she’s greeted by a kind rabbi named Meyer who knows what she is and does his best to help the golem with her situation. Our second main character is a passionate jinni named Ahmed, who awakens from a millennial-long slumber inside an iron flask to find himself in Manhattan’s Little Syria without any memory of how he got there. After taking a job as a tinsmith’s apprentice, Ahmed and Chava meet by chance one night and discover that the other isn’t human. Confused on what they are, they decide to help each other out, as both of them are in a predicament as Ahmed is bound to the flask he came out of, and that unknown to them Chava’s creator (a man named Yehudah Schaalman) is out to destroy the rogue golem.

As a first novel goes, I have to say I am thoroughly impressed with Helene Wecker. While her writing style isn’t exactly memorable or stands out compared to other authors, the idea of tying two different creatures from two different cultures is brilliant! I haven’t seen a perfect match made in heaven forever. From afar and while reading the story, ‘The Golem and the Jinni’ feels almost like a fairy tale of its own, in the same way books like Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’ does. It feels very refreshing to read a story that came from the mind of a talented person, and the idea alone gives this book a unique identity.

The golem and jinni characters in this are well-written and memorable, and surprises me the more I think about how different but similar they are. With Chava, she’s a clay creature that was made to live forever in servitude, and the idea of not having a master and feeling the needs and desires of every New Yorker she passes gives her a real character as she builds herself to be independent if she wants to survive. However, she can also be curious, loyal to her acquaintances, and is genuinely confused on how she can live a normal life even though she isn’t human. Then we have Ahmed, who is a creature of fire that is akin to passion and desires. He can be cheeky, cynical, yet has a confidence that makes him not only entertaining but also interesting in the mystery of his backstory. I especially love how Ahmad often risks himself in danger knowing he could be outed as a jinni, but he still does dangerous things like have sex with an upper-class woman or jump across the rooftops of Manhattan. This proves that while he is careful, he doesn’t want to be entirely hidden from the world. Writing this fantastic is especially showcased with the conversations Ahmad and Chava have talking about the differences and similarities between their cultures

This so easily could’ve been turned into a standard Romeo-and-Juliet story, but I was impressed when the author decided to not have them become romantic partners, but actual good friends. That’s rare, especially the way it was building up.

Then we have the side characters, who are fleshed out and seem like actual people. Rabbi Meyer kind of reminds me of the priest from ‘The Fifth Element’, where he thrives on faith, yet likes to keep to himself. He’s welcoming to strangers, and is determined to help the mysterious girl despite the risks involved. The villain in this is also entertaining and deviously intimidating, also determined to take Chava for himself as her new master.

The only thing for other readers that may confuse people is the complications of how Ahmed is tied to the flask and the reveal of his master. While I thought it was an excellent reveal, they never hinted at it or that it is possible or even believed in the Syrian culture. I’m not sure, but maybe it’s a useless nitpick.

Besides that, ‘The Golem and the Jinni’ is a beautifully written fairy tale set in historical New York that will brighten the hearts of readers everywhere. With two great main characters, a wonderful dive into two opposite cultures, and a timeless window to the year 1899, this book is an adventure I would personally recommend to everyone.

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If you have any questions or already have an opinion on the novel, feel free to leave any comments. Thanks!

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