It has been a while since I have found a fantasy novel that really drew me in, so I was quite pleased to discover Helen Wecker’s debut novel, which deftly blends elements from Jewish and Arab folktales into a more than satisfying read.
In 1899, a ship arrives in New York City’s harbor carrying immigrants from Europe. Not unusual for the 1890s. What makes this an uncommon arrival is the presence on the ship of a woman made of clay, a golem, created to be the obedient wife of Otto Rotfeld, a Jewish immigrant from Prussia. But Rotfeld dies as the ship is crossing the Atlantic, freeing the golem from his control, but leaving her doubly adrift. Not only is she a stranger in a strange land, but as a golem, she exists to serve, and she no longer has a master. When the ship arrives, the golem leaps into the harbor and makes her way to shore to avoid a confrontation with the immigration service. She arrives in the city soaking wet and knowing no one.
At the same time, a Syrian tinsmith named Arbeely, living in New York’s Little Syria, begins work repairing a copper flask brought to him by a local baker. When he touches his soldering iron to the flask, Arbeely finds himself blasted through the air, and discovers a naked man lying on the floor of the shop. It is a jinni, trapped in the flask for some thousand years.
From this fascinating beginning, Wecker weaves a complicated tale as the golem and the jinni must learn to live as humans in that most complex of cities. The golem, given the name Chava by a rabbi who recognizes her as a supernatural being and befriends her, and the jinni, whom Arbeely dubs Ahmad, and who reluctantly begins working with Arbeely, eventually meet and slowly develop a friendship. Wecker tells a moving story of two beings who share not only the challenges of being immigrants but also a further isolation from normal society. Their growing friendship and the lives of the people they meet in the Jewish and Syrian neighborhoods of New York make for a delightful story.
But more than friendship binds the two, as the reader and the pair discover. The lives of both the jinni and the golem are bound to the life of a malevolent spirit who created the golem and who imprisoned the jinni in the flask. This spirit, appearing variously as a dissolute rabbi, a Syrian wizard, and a recent immigrant to New York, seeks to control the lives of Chava and Ahmad. Only by facing together the danger that confronts them can the golem and the jinni achieve surcease of sorrow.
Check the WRL catalog for The Golem and the Jinni