Review by Amy Sawatzky
In Helene Wecker’s 2013 novel The Golem and the Jinni, New York City, 1899, serves as the new home for communities of Eastern European Jews and Syrian Christians. The city, and especially its ethnic neighborhoods, act as rich environments that highlight thematic contrasts— new/old, familiar/foreign, known/unknown,—that often define immigrant experience.
Into this landscape enter two equally contrasting characters: the newborn, innocent (and, atypically in this case, female) Golem, and the ancient, sensual (and male) Jinni. In Jewish folklore, the Golem (a roughly formed, clay or stone slave to its mystic master that inevitably loses control and must be destroyed) is adrift and uneducated in the ways of her people after her master dies during the crossing from Danzig. The Jinni (in Arabic mythology, a spirit of fire or air apart from our human world) is trapped in human form after his release from an oil flask; he is equally flummoxed by the restrictions and expectations of humanity. Each character, passing for human, finds in America a mentor or helper to provide some guidance—and a name. The kind Rabbi Levy names the Golem “Chava” after chai (“life”). The Jinni is named “Ahmed” by his tinsmith discoverer, Arbeely.
From the start, both the Golem and the Jinni are bound and restricted by their natures. Chava has been ‘born’ to sense and serve the needs of her lost master; now, everyone nearby stands in for a master requiring services. She cannot block out the yearnings, and struggles of those around her, and must strive simultaneously to manage her own desires and preferences. She is trapped not only in a superhuman body that could easily injure another, but also in a society that limits women’s opportunities and distrusts outsiders. Throughout, she gains understanding about instincts while learning that people are more than those primal feelings. As the Rabbi counsels her, “A man might desire something for a moment, while a larger part of him rejects it. You’ll need to learn to judge people by their actions, not their thoughts.”
Meanwhile, the Jinni, accustomed to isolation and heeding only his own whims, finds his own challenges in his new form. Deference to societal expectations and norms makes little sense to him, and reliance upon others is near anathema even as he attempts to fit into the society of “Little Syria.” In one scene, Ahmed reluctantly attends, a Maronite Catholic wedding; he wonders “…what could possibly induce two free beings to partner only with each other for the rest of their existence?” His creator, Arbeely, “flustered and aghast, tried to defend the institution, bringing forth every argument he could think of: paternity and legitimacy, marriage’s civilizing influence, the need for chastity in women and fidelity in men. The Jinni scoffed at each of these.” Both supernatural beings struggle to hide in plain sight within their societies, but for different reasons.
Ahmed and Chava meet about 160 pages into the book. They clash instantly. She is too “prudish and overcautious” and he is too “careless and selfish” to agree about anything. But each is alone in the world and drawn to someone else who understands their isolation. This quality underlies the book as a whole: Many of the Syrian and Jewish characters do not understand or even recognize each other’s speech or customs though they now share a city. The loneliness of both Golem and Jinni underscores the immigrant experience while linking them to their innate humanity. Ultimately, Chava and Ahmed learn they are stronger as allies and friends, especially in the face of a threat from Chava’s evil creator who is linked to each of them in surprising ways.
Wecker has created a fantastical tale that reminds us of what it means to be human, what societal affects we take for granted as “normal”, and how very similar we are even when we may be different. Those who have not yet read it have something to look forward to; so, too, do current fans—it was recently reported that a sequel is in the works.
Amy Sawatzky is an avid reader and reviewer who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her book consumption can be followed on goodreads.com/asawatzky. This is her first contribution to Fig Tree Books reviews.