Friday, April 19, 2013

Creatures of earth and fire connect in a dazzling debut

The Golem and the Jinni
by Helene Wecker

There is a certain satisfaction in coming to the end of a long novel, but as the pages dwindled on Helen Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, all I felt was grief that this magical story had to end. After 500 pages, I wanted it to go on and on. And if you stop reading this review right now, that’s all you really need to know.

You will be shocked to hear that the novel is, in fact, about a golem and a jinni. For those who are unaware, a golem is a figure of Jewish myth, an automaton made of earth or clay, brought to life to do the bidding of another. A jinni (or genie) is a figure of Arab myth, a magical creature of fire. So, before we even get into plot details, look at that fascinating set-up! Jewish/Arab. Earth/fire. Just hearing the premise, I anticipated some sort of culture clash to be central to the tale. And while the story does primarily unfold amongst the Jewish and Syrian immigrant populations of late 19th century New York, it is not a parable of Mid-East conflict. This was merely the first of many instances when Ms. Wecker defied expectation and convention, keeping me guessing in what direction her tale would evolve again and again.

Talk about defying convention—the titular golem is a woman, and self-aware. She was originally created (with a laundry list of attributes that included intelligence, curiosity, and propriety) to be a rich merchant’s wife. He, alas, died en route to America, shortly after bringing her to life. She arrived at Ellis Island without a master or a plan. The jinni, on the other hand, was freed from imprisonment in a flask—but don’t expect him to start granting wishes any time soon.

This is the story of two creatures in turn of the century New York who are both Old Worldly and
otherworldly. Separately, they must find their way in circumstances that neither is prepared for, all the while concealing their essential natures. As the golem says to the jinni, “We’re our natures, you and I.” Because, yes, eventually their paths do cross and it’s the start of a most unexpected friendship.

Can I tell you? This wonderful, literary fantasy left me wanting to slap the next writer who sits down in front of a keyboard and starts typing about a vampire. Ms. Wecker has created a story unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Her central characters, while not human, share a deep humanity (for better or worse) and are beautifully drawn. Other characters, which at first seem peripheral to the tale, prove to be central, as Wecker’s story expands encompassing a larger community. And at all times the relationships depicted between men, women, creatures, adults, children, friends, lovers, and enemies were complex, unpredictable, and captivating. The novel’s prose is as rich as the period setting is evocative. And while I really haven’t gone into any detail, please know that the plotting is both elegant and assured.

Of course, there is culture clash in this novel, and conflict galore. But in every instance that her tale could be ordinary, Ms. Wecker makes it extraordinary. The lush cultures, heritage, and history depicted so beautifully are merely the jumping off point for a dazzlingly inventive fantasy. Where did this writer come from, and how is it possible that this accomplished work is her debut? It is sure to be one of the literary highlights of the year!

NOTE: This book will be released next Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

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