Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Djinni

helenewecker-golemandthedjinniChava 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 & 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.

Helene Wecker’s debut novel has been praised by many of the bloggers I follow, it made the Locus Recommended Reading for 2013 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on several awards shortlists. And it’s no wonder, because it is a remarkable novel. A historical fantasy, the book is set in turn-of-the-19th-century New York, mostly in the Jewish and Syrian communities of that metropolis, though Wecker takes us along on long jaunts through the city. Written in beautiful prose and filled with wonderful characters, who have been haunting me ever since I’ve finished the book, The Golem and the Djinni is a book to savour slowly and deliberately. Nevertheless, I found it a fast read as I found myself immersed in the narrative and unable to put the book down. 

As the title of the book gives away, the protagonists in the book are a golem and a djinni. The choice for these two supernatural entities is refreshing as it moves away from the more well-known supernatural creatures we usually run across in fantasy. Both of these characters are lonely creatures as they are the only one of their kind in New York and they have to keep their true nature well-hidden or risk destruction or imprisonment. I loved Chava as she is a wonderful combination of naiveté and unexpected insights. One of the main questions of the book is whether she could possess a soul given her dark creation, but after spending only a few chapters with Chava the reader will never doubt it. The djinni is something different; he is far more aware of being different and considers himself above humans. He has an uneasy partnership with the man who frees him from the ubiquitous lamp and the only human he really connects with is Matthew, one of the neighbourhood boys. Ahmad is a curious mixture of arrogant fire spirit and empathetic victim and the only one he can really be himself with is Chava. In the crowded anthill that is New York these two lonely souls find each other and of this meeting grows a fascinating friendship.

Wecker spends a lot of time filling out the history of several secondary characters, which was disorienting at first, but started to make sense after the second such seeming digression. What seemed strange at first was that several of the more important secondary characters didn’t get such a detailed background, but having finished the book it makes sense. Wecker chooses only to elaborate on history that is germane to the narrative; if a character’s history doesn’t influence the novel, then it doesn’t get explained. In the end, these digressions enrich the novel and create an extra layer of depth to the narrative. They did do some weird things to the pacing of the novel, mostly giving it a rather slow build-up, but it smoothed out in the latter half of the book.

The atmospheres of the Jewish neighbourhood and Little Syria were stunningly created. Wecker manages to drop in details without seemingly trying to show off all her research. I loved the Radzin bakery, where Chava works, and the coffee shop in Little Syria owned by Maryam Faddoul and her husband. We also get glimpses of different parts of New York—the parks and squares Ahmad haunts in his night time walks and the illicit pleasures of the Bowery and the stately homes on Sixty Second Street. The Golem and the Djinni are both outsiders within groups already considered outsiders, since both of these communities consist of recent immigrants, many of whom don’t even speak English and can’t communicate with those beyond their neighbourhoods easily, which makes these communities little islands in the large sea that is New York. Through Chava and Ahmad, we get an inside view through outsider eyes, which is very interesting.

The plot is both subtle and intricate, coming full-circle in a way I hadn’t expected but felt perfect and it almost audibly clicked into place. Its ending is marvellous and emotionally fulfilling, though one wonders what will happen in the future and how the two will adapt in the years to come. I loved The Golem and the Djinni. I think it is an amazing book and if this is what Wecker does in her first novel, we can only look forward to what she’ll do next, because it will be fantastic. If I’d read this book when it came out it would have made my top ten debuts hands down and it’s hard to imagine it won’t make my favourite 2014 reads in December. I highly recommend The Golem and the Djinni, it’s a brilliant story and a stunning debut.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.