Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

I’m always reading heavy and serious books like Kafka, the classics, or dystopian science fiction. So I decided recently to read something a little more light-hearted for a change of pace.

The book I picked up was from Rachel’s shelf – The Golem and the Jinni, a 2013 debut novel from Helene Wecker. The novel still has some serious themes, but it wasn’t the type of angsty existentialism I usually dig into.

The Golem and the Jinni takes place in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York and centers around a pair of immigrants, who also happen to be magical creatures. One character is a female golem, created by a corrupt kabbalist in Poland to be a submissive wife. During the journey to America, the golem’s husband dies, leaving her alone and confused.

Now, it’s important to know what a golem is. I didn’t before I read the book. According to Wikipedia, in Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated being made entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud). As the novel shows, golems are made to obey a master. So, when the golem’s master dies, she finds herself in quite the predicament.

The other main character is a jinni. Jinn are supernatural creatures from Islamic mythology that are often held responsible for misfortune and possessions. In the novel, a tinsmith in Little Syria mistakenly frees a jinni from a flask it had been imprisoned in for hundreds of years.

An old rabbi takes the golem under his wing, eventually naming her “Chava.” The golem has an incredibly hard time trying to pass as a human. She can sense other peoples’ thoughts, desires, and fears, often leaving her overwhelmed. She also has superhuman strength that she tries to suppress.

A 1641 woodcut of kabbalists. The golem in the novel is created by a corrupt kabbalist in Poland, who creates her to be a submissive wife. Photo source: wikimedia.org

Meanwhile, the jinni becomes friends with the tinsmith in Little Syria and is given the name “Ahmad.” They become business partners, but throughout the book, the jinni shows little interest in trying to pass as human. He tries to free himself of his human form and revert to his spirit form.

The golem and the jinni eventually cross paths, and they become friends. These interactions lead to the most interesting dialogue, as they talk about their struggles and how strange they find humans to be.

It was an interesting book and a good change of pace from what I usually read. The theme I was most interested in was the idea of what it means to be human. Both the golem and jinni are magical creatures trapped in human bodies, and they both have different strategies for dealing with it.

The golem tries her hardest to be kind and compassionate, to try to be good. On the other hand, the jinni is cynical of human nature. He engages in hedonistic pursuits, has a fiery temper, and believes he’s generally above a humdrum human existence.

“The Golem of Prague” is the one of the most famous golem narratives. This depiction of the tale is from 1899. Photo source: Wikimedia.org

Another interesting theme was about the immigrant experience, as some reviewers have noted. The golem and jinni are more than immigrants – they’re magical creatures. Still, they live in immigrant communities. The fact that they’re creatures in human form also serves as a metaphor for the immigrant experience. They regularly question the customs of people in their new city (New York), and they explore with a sense of excitement and trepidation.

Overall, I was glad I picked up this novel. It’s a bit long (496 pages), and it can be a little melodramatic at times, but it was a good read. If you like historical fiction or fantasy fiction, you might enjoy it. Happy reading!

Click here to purchase The Golem and the Jinni on Amazon Kindle.

Note: I get commissions from Amazon for purchases made through links in this post – at no cost to you.

(Cover photo from Wikimedia.org)

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