My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was really between a 3.5 and a four but I put it back at three for a reason, mostly personal. Even though this has two fantasy characters, it’s much more like contemporary literature, more about the immigrant experience, finding one’s self and finding love. I try and try to like contemporary literature but I don’t. On the other hand, it’s beautifully written if a bit slow. If it had been paced better I would have put it at four stars without a problem.
The first two hundred (of nearly five hundred) pages tells the parallel stories of a golem who was made to be the wife of a man who dies on the voyage to America. Her maker is an old man, Yehudah Schaalman, later to be known as Joseph Schaalman, and he is was once a rabbinical student turned to the darker side of Jewish folklore. The jinni is released by Boutros Arbeely, a Syrian tinsmith in NYC as he tried to fix the copper flask the jinni was imprisoned in. To his dismay, the jinni doesn’t know how long he was imprisoned nor who has done it. All he knows is he’s trapped in human form by the iron cuff on his risk. Arbeely tries to help the Jinni who he names Ahmad, eventually finding him a place to live and takes him on as an ‘apprentice’ but Ahmad is proud, quick to anger and not easily fitting into human life.
In the Jewish side of town, the Golem tries to help a starving boy but manages to do it very wrong. She catches the attention of Rabbi Avram Meyer, an old man who sees immediately what she is. He knows he should destroy her because Golems always run amok eventually but she seems too innocent. He names her Chava. He finds her a job at Radzin’s bakery and introduces her to his atheist nephew, Michael Levy. She loves her job at the bakery. However, golems don’t sleep and she can read minds to make it easier to please her master.
Also in these first two hundred pages we have other characters, Ice Cream Saleh, once a Syrian doctor but now possessed by an ifrit, Sophie Winston, a wealthy girl whom Ahmad seduces, Maryam Faddoul, the wife of a coffee house owner and social hub of the community who owned the copper flask, Anna, Chava’s coworker who fools around a bit too much for her own good and Fadwa al-Hadid a Bedouin girl from centuries past who marks the first real interactions the Jinni had with humans. Sometimes we spend whole chapters on these characters. In all fairness, they all play a role in the story but sometimes it really slows down everything.
Around page two hundred, the golem and the jinni meet and start walking out at night. I do wonder if the streets of NYC were this busy after 11 pm around 1900 but I can accept that they might have been. It’s obvious to the reader, if not the golem and the jinni, that Chava and Ahmad are well suited for each other and have begun to mean something to each other, though they would probably deny it in the beginning.
Schaalman doesn’t get to America until after page three hundred, insinuating himself into Michael Levy’s shelter house (Michael is a social worker). He’s still after the path to immortality. Eventually he comes across both Ahmad and Chava and the last hundred or so pages are the most exciting. Obviously he wants to use them to serve him and his quest and he’ll do whatever evil thing he has to, to accomplish this. In the meantime, Chava has done some things she shouldn’t have; ditto Ahmad and their existences are already in jeopardy.
Honestly, I could have done without the Sophie Winston plot line (how she fits in at the end could have been done other ways). She just slows things down far too much. I could say ditto for Anna but Chava wouldn’t have made her huge mistakes without it so… It’s a lovely story in many ways but in others I wanted it to pick up the pace. I guessed all the big plot twists and I wasn’t too surprised it had a happy ending even though it could have gone the other way. I do think it’s a very good debut book.
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