Every now and then a reviewer might have the luck of a novel landing on her table that is not only engrossing, imaginative and a pure joy to read, but also well-crafted and intelligent. This is the case with Helene Wecker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni (HarperHarper Collins Publishers).
Rotfeld, a Prussian Jew and “an arrogant, feckless sort of man,” approaches the fiendish Yehudah Schaalman, who “liked to dabble in the more dangerous of the Kabalistic arts,” and places an order for a female golem. The Golem is delivered to Rotfeld with an important piece of paper that holds the two required commands that will bring the Golem to life and destroy her, when her violent nature is provoked. We are told that, “once a golem develops a taste for destruction, little can stop it save the words that destroy it.”
Rotfeld sails to New York, with his not-yet-brought-to life Golem safe in a nailed crate. Despite Schaalman’s warning against awakening the Golem on the crowded ship, where it will raise suspicions, Rotfeld does so. Tragedy strikes when Rotfeld dies before they reach their destination, leaving the Golem lost and aimless without her master.
At the same time, a Jinni, made of fire as all these creatures are, and imprisoned for a thousand years, is accidentally freed from his oil flask, finding himself in Lower Manhattan, in the shop of Arbeely, a Syrian tinsmith. The Jinni is handsome and elegant, with a flippant arrogance about him that is reminiscent of Anne Rice’s the Vampire Lestat, minus the taste for human blood. One wonders how long the imposing Jinni, with his face that glows as if behind a lampshade and the ability to melt iron, create metal figurines and light a cigarette with his bare hands, will succeed to keep his nature a secret. The same is true of the Golem, with her extraordinary height, inhuman strength, and the power to read minds. Still, it is inevitable that the two must eventually mingle with their neighbors and, soon enough, Arbeely, the tinsmith, and Rabbi Avram Meyer, who finds himself responsible for the Golem, slowly introduce and encourage their charges to step out into the dangerous streets of New York.
The Golem and the Jinni are different in many ways, yet similar in that they are both outsiders with no need for sleep and ill-prepared for the world in which they have been transplanted. The two, when they eventually meet, struggle to comprehend the ways of humans with “their constant sense of urgency.” In the process, they pose all sorts of questions — philosophical, religious, ethical, cultural, and emotional — that will reveal a human world more puzzling than the fantastical worlds the Golem and the Jinni come from. In one scene, the Jinni declares “that of all the creatures he’d ever encountered, be they made of flesh or fire, none was quite as exasperating as a human.” And the Golem, as she struggles to understand why it is sometimes more polite to lie rather than state the truth and why it is not proper to take something away from someone and give it to a more needy person, asks: “If the act of love is so dangerous, why do people risk so much for it?” Quite perceptive, wouldn’t you say?
The relationship between the Golem and the Jinni unfold against the backdrop of a cast of fascinating characters — the gossipy, kind-hearted Maryam, the ice cream man, Mahmud Saleh, whose sight has been tampered with by an evil spirit, Anna, in the bakery where the Golem works, Sophia Winston, whom the Jinni impregnates with his own spark of fire, Mathew, the orphan boy who forges a bond with the Jinni, and Michael Levy, Rabbi Meyer’s nephew, who falls in love with the Golem.
It is an imaginative coup to bring the Golem and the Jinni together and through their freshly innocent point of view give life to the immigrant Jewish and Syrian communities of New York in 1899, with their all too real human dilemmas. And against my own better judgment, I began to hope that the Golem and the Jinni, despite their warring natures, would find love and happiness together and settle in this alien, human world.
But Yehuda Schaalman, in search of the “formula for something called the Water of Life,” makes his way to New York and to the Golem he created. With his spells and incantations, the man for whom “the fires of Gehenna had long been a foregone conclusion,” wreaks havoc on all of their lives and in the process churns up a flood of unexpected events.
It is a mark of Wecker’s deft touch that the meeting of all these characters and the closure of the story does not feel contrived, but rather inevitable in this fantastical story that is rendered with such precise emotional analysis and detailed sense of place that one is readily engaged, involved and invested.