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Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

January 31, 2016

17406654The Golem and the Jinni
Helene Wecker
Harper
(Library book)

Set in turn-of-the-century New York, this is a fantastic (in both senses) tale of a golem and a jinni each living among humans in a way that is not quite like the typical bounds of their ancestral culture and mythology. Chava is a golem, brought to life in a twisted way, designed and bound to be a man’s wife. When he dies almost as soon as her life begins, she is unmoored and made to find her own way in New York City, with the help of a kind older rabbi who understands her nature. The Jinni is proud and arrogant, remembering the power he held in the desert before being bound to a wizard master, but what he can’t remember is who bound him or how to get free and resume his former power. Grudgingly, he takes a job using his power over fire and metal to work with a tinsmith in little Syria. Restless from their days in the human world, they find each other, and begin a friendship. The story shifts between their perspectives, occasionally looping in to encompass one of the humans they meet.

Lovely prose, both in imagery and the way the words fell together. And I loved the way the two magical creatures came together, across cultures in New York, to learn from each other, even as they learned to navigate the human world. I enjoyed the magical language and atmosphere. Chava and the Jinni are each informed and characterized by their mythological heritage, and their thoughts explored in the shifting point of view of the story.

Accustomed to following whims and wielding power, the Jinni goes where he likes at night, melting the lock off the aquarium to wander and gaze inside, without a second thought. As he befriends Chava, the two of them argue: she is scandalized at the ways he wants to take risks, take what he wants, disobey the rules. A golem without an official master, passing as a human woman in an Orthodox Jewish community made for an especially interesting characterization where myth and culture intersect.

It was easy to read social commentary into the way Chava argued for adhering to rules, the way she obeyed a woman’s role in her adopted human culture, keeping her superhuman abilities like strength in check, but that layer of meaning didn’t distract from the story. Instead, it made it more fun to read. The threads of all the characters, mythic and human, pointed to a larger story about power dynamics that plays out in an inventive take on blending cultures’ magic as well as in commentary on social norms and dynamics between men and women. And it works fairly seamlessly, staying in the background of the lovely prose.

Something that didn’t work seamlessly: the story setting itself up for a sequel. The way the climax worked (interesting magic and power dynamics on the plus side) pointed towards a continuation that felt grafted on, where I would have preferred a self-contained resolution. I’m left dubious about where the story could go next, although willing to read because I do like the prose style.

Because I want to end this review on a positive note and get lots of people to read this lovely prose and take on cultural mythology, I’ll end with another thing I liked: the respectful way it’s a story about friendship rather than True Love. As much as the two mythical creatures argued and found each other exasperating, I could see a bond of respect, caring and friendship between them that was touching and made me smile.  Each encountered humans who were willing to help them and be generous. Part of Chava’s generous nature was built into her as a golem, but part also read like kindness. And even Jinni, who was much more arrogant around humans had moments that showed heart. I liked that.

 

 

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