Author: Helene Wecker, 2013.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Fantasy. Folklore/Mythology.
Other Details: Hardback. 486 pages.
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 djinni, 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 Djinni' 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. - synopsis from UK publisher's website.
Published in the USA as The Golem and the Jinni this is an astonishingly assured début novel that blends elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology with the vibrancy of immigrant culture in turn-of-the-century New York. Despite the fact that its two main characters are supernatural creatures the novel is very rooted in the realism of its historical setting.
Both the Golem and the Djinni are given names by the humans who discovered them in New York. For Chava this is Avram Meyer, a kindly elderly rabbi who recognises what she is from his own exploration of forbidden Kabbalistic lore in his youth. He knows that a golem without a master is a dangerous creature and while he has the knowledge to destroy her, he is moved by her innocence to help her find her place in this world. Boutros Arbeely, the tinsmith who releases Ahmad, is also a protector though the djinni is more confident in his dealings with humans and his powers are already controlled. Still both men serve to assist the creatures to integrate into the human world. Aside from this there is a cast of memorable supporting characters, each with their own story that plays out over the course of the novel.
I had heard very positive things about this novel from various trusted sources including Inverarity's review for fantasywithbite and it featured on a number of favourite books of 2013 lists. I would certainly add my voice to that praise. As well as a poignant story of two creatures who are are very much outsiders to human society, the novel also stresses the sense of community in these two New York close-knit neighbourhoods and explores themes of loneliness, love and purpose.
I loved this novel and was drawn in completely by Wecker's prose and her skilful handling of her historical setting and believable blending of these two mythologies. I remained entranced until its final satisfying pages. She is certainly an author whose future work I'll be looking out for.
Helene Wecker's Page on 'The Golem and the Jinni' - includes links to excerpt, character sketches, and background on New York City, Little Syria and the Lower East Side in 1899.