Friday, August 15, 2014

The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker // An Adventure in Ethnicities


Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899. 

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world. 

The Golem and the Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

What a debut novel! I love this book for a variety of reasons: the characters, the writing, and, most of all, the infusion of culture into the story.

Let's talk about that - the culture part - first.

A Golem, you may know, is a creature from Jewish myth: a powerful, clay human-like thing, created by a rabbi, entirely obedient to it's master. However, if it once begins destroying things, it may not stop, and must be destroyed, so the master must be cautious.

A Jinni is a djinn, a genie, from Arabic folklore. You know, one of these:

And in the novel, these two mythological creatures meet, in that great melting pot of cultures - New York, of course!

And this is where Wecker shows her magic. She provides us with such an in-depth view of both Arabic and Jewish culture - the tastes, the smells, the idioms, everything. It is utterly fantastic. 

Culture fascinates me. Of course, in America, we have an american culture, but that's not what I mean. I mean ethnicity, and everything that comes with belonging to a certain ethnicity. I've always been interested in exploring the traditions and practices and mindsets of other cultures, and Wecker has been able to showcase the two cultures present in The Golem and The Jinni amazingly. 

I just adore the idea of combining two mythical creatures from two different parts of the world in one story. It's a spectacular plan. Also, the way that Wecker contrasted the characters of the Golem and the Jinni was great. They both had such depth to them.
They were practically opposites - clay and fire, obedience and freedom - and yet they were remarkably similar in that they were both stuck in a country that didn't believe in them, a country an ocean away from their home. 
And it's not just the two main characters that have depth. EVERYONE has depth. Everyone has some sort of backstory and purpose. At first there were a couple characters getting introduced that I wondered about - Will they actually be relevant to the plot? But they were. 

One thing that was a bit difficult, reading-wise, was the amount of flashbacks. The novel starts with the Golem coming to America, but of course we need flashbacks to hear about her story before. And the Jinni - gosh he had quite a history back when he lived in the desert. But his flashbacks were important and slowly taught us more and more about who he was and why he was stuck in a bottle and who had put him there. Though the flashbacks were sometimes confusing, they were definitely necessary to the plot, and could not have been written as non-flashbacks, since they added to the mystery of the novel. So that is definitely overlookable.

Highlight below for spoilers:

I also love that the Golem and the Jinni did NOT have a romance. The Jinni tried passion with Sophia Winston, and the Golem tried marriage with Michael Levy, and they both realized that, since they were not human, a relationship with a human wouldn't work. It just wasn't possible.
The next option was for them to fall in love with each other - but that didn't happen. The book is not about their romance - it is about their struggle in a world that does not accept their kind.
There is a hint at the end that they possibly worked something out, though:
Maybe, [the Golem] thought as she fastened her cloak, there was some middle ground to be had, a resting place between passion and practicality. She had no idea how they would find it: in all likelihood they'd have to carve it for themselves out of thin air. And any path they chose would not be an easy one. But perhaps she could allow herself to hope. 
So overall, I very much liked the book. The writing is detailed and rather lyrical, and the plot and characters are definitely unique. I'm very glad I read it, and can't wait for more Helene Wecker!

Have you read The Golem and the Jinni? If so - what did you think?
And either way - do you have any books to recommend that delve deeply into various cultures? Let me know!


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