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I love fantasy and have been waiting with great anticipation for The Golem and the Jinni. I was not disappointed by this enchanting debut novel by Helen Wecker, but it was not what I expected either. This story is much more an allegory blended with historical fiction than it is a classic fantasy with a magical system driving the plot. It is a difficult story to describe in a meaningful way because the novel has many layers. On the surface it can simply be read as an interesting tale about magical creatures, evil wizards, spells, and the pursuit of immortality. (Aside to parents - this is definitely NOT a children's story.) But, woven throughout the novel are several much deeper themes to ponder long after you finish the book. On one level, this is truly an immigrant story - people throughout time moving to new places out of wanderlust, to escape a threat, or in pursuit of a better life and the challenges of creating community, maintaining cultural identity, and overcoming language barriers and prejudice that come with that. Ultimately, both the Golem and the Jinni end up as accidental immigrants to the wonderful/frightening place that was New York City of 1899 and their adventures as strangers in a strange land provide a fascinating allegory for all immigrants. On another level, The Golem and the Jinni is a study of human nature - the moral and ethical dilemmas, romantic and platonic love, faith, altruism, free will and enslavement, and the meaning of life and death. Wecker's mythical creatures are forced to tackle these big questions of humanity without the benefit of parents, religious training, or schooling that give most of us some foundation and watching them wrestle with those issues is surprisingly entertaining and thought-provoking. I suspect this is a book that could give you a new perspective each time you read it.
Initially, I was so anxious to understand what the big conflict would be (anticipating some type of magical culture clash or something), I almost missed the beautiful view along the way. I started the book over when I finally realized that Wecker is laying down a very intricate pattern that you have to appreciate from start to finish - this is not a book you'd play on double speed or you would miss much of the nuance, some of the deeper questions, and some very nice prose. Wecker takes disparate stories, multiple characters, several historical time periods and weaves them together to create a rather mesmerizing flying carpet of a tale that is part fable, part romance, and part historical fiction. And, when you get right down to what every reader hopes for, The Golem and the Jinni delivers - it has a terrific ending! Helene Wecker is really talented and for a debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is quite well written - characters are nicely fleshed out, settings are vivid, and there is a nice fluidity moving between settings and different periods of time. In addition, the audio version benefits from the narration of the always fine, George Guidall - his seasoned voice is a great fit for this story.
I have no hesitation in recommending the book. This isn't your average fantasy fare, but most fantasy readers will find a lot to love. In addition, because of the bigger themes, the amazing characters, and the vibrant historical setting most people who enjoy an entertaining and meaningful story independent of genre will like The Golem and the Jinni. I am really looking forward to more from Helene Wecker!
169 of 179 people found this review helpful
This was a wonderfully creative interweaving of mythology, fantasy, immigrant history, and cultural understanding with some danger and romance thrown in. The relationship between Jinni and Golem is complex because they are so different in their natures (hot and cold, impulsive and reserved, selfish and serving) and yet also alike in their bafflement of the human race and the stress of needing to suppress their true natures. Their divergent viewpoints lead to very insightful debates on matters of ethics, morals, religion and free will, challenging each other’s actions and motivations. They embodied both the best and the worst of the humans they were trying to figure out and this adds depth to what is essentially a stranger-in-a-strange-land tale. As is true with the best of mythology or folk tales, there is a lot to be learned by humans from the dilemmas threatening the Jinni and the Golem. Their struggles make you think about just what does it mean to be human.
While the tone is often dark and dangerous, there is also plenty of humor found in the recognition of small moments of everyday living, lending the supernatural a reassuringly grounded feeling. The supporting characters, good, bad or in between, are all wonderfully written. There wasn't one I felt was a misstep. Helene Wecker’s writing is straightforward and assured, George Guidall’s reading is perfection. I loved every minute of this book.
58 of 62 people found this review helpful
What did you like most about The Golem and the Jinni?
„The Golem and the Jinni“ is one of those rare books that completely draws you into its world. In her first published novel Helene Wecker creates a magical setting, beginning at the turn of the century in Poland and then she brings New York and its inhabitants to life. Combined with old Arabian and Jewish folk tales, she had me hooked until the last page was read – at the same time wishing for a magical book that would never end.
Two mystical beings live among humans, trying to survive without being notice, blend in but not lose themselves. Chava (= life) is a golem and was created by rabbi in Poland who liked meddling with the dark arts, is “curious and intelligent”, as her master had requested. Ahmad is a fire jinni who was trapped in an old copper flask, released by chance in New York but is still bound by an old spell.
Both do not really fit into human society and often feel lonely, especially at night when nearly everyone around them is asleep. Surrounding them is a colourful mix of all classes of New York’s society at that time.
Chava was created to serve, to please her master. Unfortunately he already died on the voyage to New York, or maybe fortunately for her? She herself is never certain, because her unusual intelligence and perceptiveness for human needs put her into a permanent vicious circle. There is one episode when she tries to find out what “money” is, as this must be more important to humans than everything else….
And this explains one of the reasons why I was so fascinated with this book. It is a moving tale of two outsiders who can never really fit in. Who look at our human society from a totally different angle. Who must make their way in a world totally foreign to them, even more than to all the other immigrants coming to New York. Both are very different from us humans and in some ways not so very different at all. They could live forever – but they want to do so? Chava yearns for a master, the jinni for freedom. She was made of clay, feels cold to the touch, he was created of fire and has a fierce temper, too.
The other figures show other facets of human life, a kind old rabbi, a vicious magus, a young woman from New York’s high society, a bedouin girl and her father… The tale of each figure is told with utmost sensitivity, letting all of them come to life and stay in my memory for a long time.
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Any additional comments?
Some elements reminded me of the books by Deborah Harkness who also expertly lets her magical beings move in our human world, creating characters that seem like real persons after a few chapters.
“The Golem and the Jinni” is one of the best stories I have read in a long time, with magical and oh so human characters, letting me walk the streets of a long vanished New York and wishing them all the happiness in the world. A magical, moving, sometimes humours tale. I hope Helene Wecker will continue writing and look forward to reading her next novel.