The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My younger sister and I were taking a long car trip together last month, and I was looking for ways to pass the time. I had Audible credits, so she suggested I pick up this book, as it seemed relevant to both of our interests, and she'd heard good things about it. I went in with no expectations whatever, except that it would pass the time.
We only made it about halfway through the book together, but I finished listening as quickly as I could. It builds slowly, at first, with simple, straightforward language, often describing newly introduced characters' entire lives. The story takes place in New York City, amongst the immigrant communities, so the narrative often halted to explain what a person was doing in America. But, after the scene is set and the players established, the story that unwinds is tightly plotted and fascinating.
It turns out that each introduced character plays an important role in the narrative. Even one who seemed to only be there to show how basely another character behaved wound up helping in an essential way. The plot is never bogged down with the numerous characters and perspective shifts; rather, they carry it.
The fantastical elements of this book stand in for human traits, often exaggerated or that the author wishes to explore within the story. The titular jinni's fiery nature makes him a reckless pleasure seeker who lives in the moment, while the golem is grounded, unchanging, and dependable. Their friendship is unlikely, but entirely believable the way it unfolds. Similarly, I can't imagine that many Jewish widows mingled with many Syrian hotheads in the New York City of 1899.
The golem's creation seemed, to me, like a metaphor for the preparation young women might've gone through to become the perfect wives, only to be whisked away from everything they know. Chava is made to order, her specifications sounding a lot like the list a young man seeking a bride might have presented to a matchmaker. She's lost and confused when she reaches New York City, but her fantastic nature makes her far more prepared than human women would've been. Nonetheless, I feel she represents the strength and staid nature of a lot of women immigrants.
Ahmad, on the other hand, appears even more suddenly in Little Syria, and is no less disoriented. He's a prisoner, kept in human form, and his restlessness is perfectly understandable. For a being of fire who lived by himself most of the time and didn't understand humans, New York City is stifling. His characterization captures the spirit of those who didn't find what they expected, and whose skills were undervalued in the new world they found themselves in, but made the most of what they could do. His wandering also gives the author a chance to show us a lot of the New York City we don't read about in history books, in a way that never felt like an infodump.
Within the book, such concepts as free will, what makes a person human, the nature of the soul, ethics, spirituality, consequences, and nature versus nurture are all explored. The book offers no easy answers to these questions, and it never browbeats the reader with the author's opinion. Sometimes Chava is right to be cautious, and sometimes Ahmad's impulsivity serves him well. Neither is a mouthpiece, though I found Chava the more sympathetic of the two.
The ending is bittersweet, but hopeful. Or maybe most of the bitterness came from the fact that I was finished listening to it. The language isn't flowery or poetic, but it does present a fascinating world, and uses it to make the reader think about the world we live in. If you have any interest in historical fiction with fantasy elements, pick this up. For me, the multicultural approach was a bonus, not a barrier, but it's quite approachable even if you aren't familiar with these cultures.
As I mentioned above, I read this book on audio, read by George Guidall. He's an excellent narrator, and was well up to the task of imitating several different accents. I couldn't have told you what the difference was between a Christian Syrian and a Muslim one, but Guidall gave them subtly different accents that easily distinguished them. He also narrated female dialogue well, softening it without affecting a falsetto or screeching.
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