Helene Wecker's dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who appear mysteriously in 1899 New York. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York Harbor. 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.
Struggling to make their way in this strange new place, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their neighbors while masking their true natures. Surrounding them is a community of immigrants: the coffeehouse owner Maryam Faddoul, a pillar of wisdom and support for her Syrian neighbors; the solitary ice cream maker Saleh, a damaged man cursed by tragedy; the kind and caring Rabbi Meyer and his beleaguered nephew, Michael, whose Sheltering House receives newly arrived Jewish men; the adventurous young socialite Sophia Winston; and the enigmatic Joseph Schall, a dangerous man driven by ferocious ambition and esoteric wisdom.
Meeting by chance, the two creatures become 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 menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.
Marvelous and compulsively listenable, The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of folk mythology, historical fiction, and magical fable into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.
©2013 Helene Wecker (P)2013 HarperCollins Publishers
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
Helene Wecker's fine first novel The Golem and the Jinni (2013) opens with the separate unintentional immigrations to NYC in 1899 of a masterless female golem from Poland and a bound male jinni from the Syrian desert. Wecker recounts with fascinating detail the attempts of the two supernatural beings to pass as human in their new Jewish (golem) and Syrian (jinni) Manhattan immigrant communities. The golem has awakened to life on the ship over to America, so she is only a few days old, but the jinni has been imprisoned in a flask for a thousand years, and in addition to the 1899 plot strand, Wecker reveals little by little the jinni's past and how he came to be bound in human form and by whom. While sharing some traits (superhuman strength and agility, fluency in any human language, and the inability to sleep or digest food), the golem and the jinni also have different abilities and personalities. Because the golem's master dies en route to NYC, her innate need to satisfy a master renders her ultra-sensitive to the desires and fears of every person in her proximity. The jinni, essentially a creature of air and fire, chafes at being trapped in human form but excels at doing metal work and lighting cigarettes with his bare hands. The golem is more cautious, prudish, conservative, and empathetic, the jinii more irresponsible, liberated, creative, and selfish. One of the pleasures of the novel is watching the personalities of the two protagonists develop as their plot strands weave ever closer together.
I enjoyed the fresh perspectives of the jinni and the golem about such things as the puzzling human belief in irrational religions and inconvenient social codes, the mystifying construction of large decorative marble arches that lead to or from nowhere, the magical transformations into bread and cake of dough when baked, the dark fascination of aquariums, the claustrophobic nature of commuter trains, the perfection of chicken eggs, and so on.
I cared for the characters, from the two protagonists (so human despite their supernatural differences and belief in their own inhumanity) down to the supporting players like the kind and moral Rabbi Meyer and his honest and naïve nephew Michael Levy, the circumspect tinsmith Boutros Arbeely, the quiet boy Matthew, the tragic ice cream vendor Saleh, the bored and daydreamy heiress Sophia Winston, the heart-of-her-community coffeehouse mistress Maryam Faddoul, the bickering bakery owning Radzins, and even, at times, oddly enough, the abhorrent wizard villain. I enjoyed spending time with them.
I was also impressed by Wecker's evocation of sublime, filthy, and vigorous 1899 NYC, its different districts devoted to the detached wealthy, the squalid poor, and various immigrant groups; it's expansive parks and noisy elevated trains and sordid rooftop demimonde.
The novel also has plenty of good writing, many funny, moving, suspenseful, ironic, or beautiful passages. As when the jinni "comfort[s] himself with the thought that although he might be forced to live like a human, he'd never truly be one," speculates that "perhaps this God of the humans is just a jinni like myself, stuck in the heavens, forced to grant wishes," and rides the Elevated train between two cars: "The noise was deafening, a rattle and screech that penetrated his entire body. Sparks from the track leapt past, blown by a violent wind. Lamp-lit windows flashed by in bright, elongated squares. At Fifty-ninth street he jumped out from between the cars, still shaking."
Other choice passages are the detailed description of the jinni's mesmerizing tin ceiling map-picture of his home desert, down to "a miniscule boar, stout and barrel-chested, the last of the sun glinting off tin-plated tusks," and the moment when the golem sees the jinni for the first time: "His face--and his hands as well, she saw now--shone with that warm light, like a lamp shaded with gauze. She watched him come nearer, unable to take her eyes away."
And the novel is often very funny, as when Radzin and his wife talk about a boy who compulsively counted everything until he died young:
"But he died, the year before we left. A mule kicked him in the head. " She paused, and then said, "I always wondered if he provoked it deliberately."
Radzin snorted. "Suicide by mule."
"Everyone knew that animal had a temper."
Upon reflection, I suppose that the climax of the novel, though suspenseful and satisfying, is a little too iffy and cinematic, but the book pulses with human life, wisdom, stories, and interesting themes, like the balance between autonomy and servitude in our souls and lives, the nature of love, the quality of community, and the vigorous attraction of the modern city.
This is the first book that I have heard Robert Guidall read, and I quickly became enamored of his savory and compassionate voice. In fact, I suspect that his intelligent, restrained, and sensitive reading of the novel (from his quiet golem to his flighty jinni) increased or enhanced my appreciation of it. I will listen to more books read by him.
Fans of romantic historical urban fantasy (if it is a genre) would probably enjoy this book.
I guess this qualifies as historical fiction, since it's set in turn of the century NYC or fantasy, since it has supernatural qualities in it, but I don't think it needs a set category -- it's just a really good story.
George Guidall is quickly becoming one of my favorite narrators and he does an amazing job on this story as well.
This book did the two best things for me: Made me feel like I was there while I was reading it, and made me sad to reach the end.
Two great passions - dogs and books! Sci-fi/fantasy novels are my go-to favorites, but I love good writing across all genres.
I love fantasy and have been waiting with great anticipation for The Golem and the Jinni. I was not disappointed by this enchanting debut novel by Helen Wecker, but it was not what I expected either. This story is much more an allegory blended with historical fiction than it is a classic fantasy with a magical system driving the plot. It is a difficult story to describe in a meaningful way because the novel has many layers. On the surface it can simply be read as an interesting tale about magical creatures, evil wizards, spells, and the pursuit of immortality. (Aside to parents - this is definitely NOT a children's story.) But, woven throughout the novel are several much deeper themes to ponder long after you finish the book. On one level, this is truly an immigrant story - people throughout time moving to new places out of wanderlust, to escape a threat, or in pursuit of a better life and the challenges of creating community, maintaining cultural identity, and overcoming language barriers and prejudice that come with that. Ultimately, both the Golem and the Jinni end up as accidental immigrants to the wonderful/frightening place that was New York City of 1899 and their adventures as strangers in a strange land provide a fascinating allegory for all immigrants. On another level, The Golem and the Jinni is a study of human nature - the moral and ethical dilemmas, romantic and platonic love, faith, altruism, free will and enslavement, and the meaning of life and death. Wecker's mythical creatures are forced to tackle these big questions of humanity without the benefit of parents, religious training, or schooling that give most of us some foundation and watching them wrestle with those issues is surprisingly entertaining and thought-provoking. I suspect this is a book that could give you a new perspective each time you read it.
Initially, I was so anxious to understand what the big conflict would be (anticipating some type of magical culture clash or something), I almost missed the beautiful view along the way. I started the book over when I finally realized that Wecker is laying down a very intricate pattern that you have to appreciate from start to finish - this is not a book you'd play on double speed or you would miss much of the nuance, some of the deeper questions, and some very nice prose. Wecker takes disparate stories, multiple characters, several historical time periods and weaves them together to create a rather mesmerizing flying carpet of a tale that is part fable, part romance, and part historical fiction. And, when you get right down to what every reader hopes for, The Golem and the Jinni delivers - it has a terrific ending! Helene Wecker is really talented and for a debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is quite well written - characters are nicely fleshed out, settings are vivid, and there is a nice fluidity moving between settings and different periods of time. In addition, the audio version benefits from the narration of the always fine, George Guidall - his seasoned voice is a great fit for this story.
I have no hesitation in recommending the book. This isn't your average fantasy fare, but most fantasy readers will find a lot to love. In addition, because of the bigger themes, the amazing characters, and the vibrant historical setting most people who enjoy an entertaining and meaningful story independent of genre will like The Golem and the Jinni. I am really looking forward to more from Helene Wecker!
I can't hardly believe this is a first book ... this author made magic on the page come to life ... what a wonderfully imaginative and fresh way to spin a tale about mythical characters that make you think your hearing about them for the very first time ... the historical time frame was woven in the story perfectly ... I can't say enough how much I enjoyed this book ... fresh, imaginative, creative - adjectives just escape me ... George Guidall did a masterful reading of this title ... forget what ever else you have a your wish list move this title to the top of your list & listen to this book - you won't regret it.
I have a friend that reads Sci-fi, I read hoaky romance stories and British mysteries. Why she recommended this book to me I will never know, I'm just glad she did. I found myself "sneaking" to listen at work! I knew nothing about Golems or Jinnis before this book. This book is set in 1927 New York. In addition to the fascinating lifes of the Golem and the Jinni, it provides a very interesting peep into what life was like for Jewish, Syrian, etc. immigrants. There is magic, a little romance, religious angst, culture, class differences, 1927 morality, and even the hunt for immortality! I can't wait to hear more from SW. To top it off, one of my all time favorite narrators, George Guidall. I can't say enough about this book. I wouldn't tell Audible this, but this one is worth 2 credits!
This was fascinating to me on various levels, you got to learn about
- Golem's and Genies
- explore how they felt suddenly turning up in 19th C New York.
- what 19th C New York was like with all the new immigrants
- myths and legends in Jewish Kaballa culture (golems) and Bedouin culture, (genies)
It was really well written, well read, absorbing, believable and a good pace
We got to explore each character and how they felt about what was happening now and how they got to this stage in their lives.
Lots of mystery and intrigue -- refreshingly unpredictable
Absolutely! Wonderful story, characters and questions of existence. This was such a delightful surprise since I had not heard of the author before or read reviews of the book. George Guidall is one of my favorite narrators and is once again excellent
Rating scale: 5=Loved it, 4=Liked it, 3=Ok, 2=Disappointed, 1=Hated it. I look for well developed characters, compelling stories.
This was a wonderfully creative interweaving of mythology, fantasy, immigrant history, and cultural understanding with some danger and romance thrown in. The relationship between Jinni and Golem is complex because they are so different in their natures (hot and cold, impulsive and reserved, selfish and serving) and yet also alike in their bafflement of the human race and the stress of needing to suppress their true natures. Their divergent viewpoints lead to very insightful debates on matters of ethics, morals, religion and free will, challenging each other’s actions and motivations. They embodied both the best and the worst of the humans they were trying to figure out and this adds depth to what is essentially a stranger-in-a-strange-land tale. As is true with the best of mythology or folk tales, there is a lot to be learned by humans from the dilemmas threatening the Jinni and the Golem. Their struggles make you think about just what does it mean to be human.
While the tone is often dark and dangerous, there is also plenty of humor found in the recognition of small moments of everyday living, lending the supernatural a reassuringly grounded feeling. The supporting characters, good, bad or in between, are all wonderfully written. There wasn't one I felt was a misstep. Helene Wecker’s writing is straightforward and assured, George Guidall’s reading is perfection. I loved every minute of this book.
I would rate this among the best I've listened to. The story captured me from the first few paragraphs and the reader is excellent at bringing the characters to life. I listen while driving and always looked forward to getting back in the car so I could continue the story.
Highly recommend this book.
"Fascinating magical tale"
„The Golem and the Jinni“ is one of those rare books that completely draws you into its world. In her first published novel Helene Wecker creates a magical setting, beginning at the turn of the century in Poland and then she brings New York and its inhabitants to life. Combined with old Arabian and Jewish folk tales, she had me hooked until the last page was read – at the same time wishing for a magical book that would never end.
Two mystical beings live among humans, trying to survive without being notice, blend in but not lose themselves. Chava (= life) is a golem and was created by rabbi in Poland who liked meddling with the dark arts, is “curious and intelligent”, as her master had requested. Ahmad is a fire jinni who was trapped in an old copper flask, released by chance in New York but is still bound by an old spell.
Both do not really fit into human society and often feel lonely, especially at night when nearly everyone around them is asleep. Surrounding them is a colourful mix of all classes of New York’s society at that time.
Chava was created to serve, to please her master. Unfortunately he already died on the voyage to New York, or maybe fortunately for her? She herself is never certain, because her unusual intelligence and perceptiveness for human needs put her into a permanent vicious circle. There is one episode when she tries to find out what “money” is, as this must be more important to humans than everything else….
And this explains one of the reasons why I was so fascinated with this book. It is a moving tale of two outsiders who can never really fit in. Who look at our human society from a totally different angle. Who must make their way in a world totally foreign to them, even more than to all the other immigrants coming to New York. Both are very different from us humans and in some ways not so very different at all. They could live forever – but they want to do so? Chava yearns for a master, the jinni for freedom. She was made of clay, feels cold to the touch, he was created of fire and has a fierce temper, too.
The other figures show other facets of human life, a kind old rabbi, a vicious magus, a young woman from New York’s high society, a bedouin girl and her father… The tale of each figure is told with utmost sensitivity, letting all of them come to life and stay in my memory for a long time.
Some elements reminded me of the books by Deborah Harkness who also expertly lets her magical beings move in our human world, creating characters that seem like real persons after a few chapters.
“The Golem and the Jinni” is one of the best stories I have read in a long time, with magical and oh so human characters, letting me walk the streets of a long vanished New York and wishing them all the happiness in the world. A magical, moving, sometimes humours tale. I hope Helene Wecker will continue writing and look forward to reading her next novel.
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