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 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. 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 Jinni 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.
At first glance, there’s something refreshing and a little bit exciting about Helene Wecker’s debut novel. Partly it’s the innovative move of having a female Golem, something I’ve never seen done before. And partly it’s having the Golem meet a Jinni in early 20th Century New York, both of them well and truly outside their comfort zones. And finally it’s Wecker’s beguiling writing style, almost fairytale in quality, that pulls you through the narrative.
Dig a bit deeper though and you discover the novel lacks substance. While I loved the idea of Wecker exploring two very different cultures through the eyes of the Golem and the Jinni, the actual representation of those cultures rang false. Wecker may have been drawing on her own Jewish background and her husband’s Arab / American heritage, but in the service of a rip roaring, page turning read, she falls back on caricature and stereotype. Whether it’s the kindly old Rabbi with a heart of gold, or the earnest, hard working tinsmith, or the owner of the local coffee shop who knows everyone and is in everyone’s business, or the socialist who tries so hard to do the right thing, these characters feel like they’ve been cut and pasted from the latest Disney animation.
Wecker’s take on Jewish mysticism also feels like it’s been given the Disney treatment. Although there’s much debate in orthodox Jewish circles as to whether the Maharal of Prague actually created a Golem in the 16th Century (to ostensibly stop pogroms and blood libels), in the world of the Golem and the Jinni, animating clay is something any rabbinical student can do with a little bit of knowledge. Added to that is the laughable idea that Rabbi’s have hidden texts – for all intents and purposes spell books – that they keep away from prying eyes. Yes, the Kabbalah (which is only referenced twice in the novel) and books like the Sefer Yetzirah talk about the manipulation of reality and the notion of sod, secret and esoteric knowledge hidden from all but the most learned, but the role of mysticism in Jewish culture is far more complex than the magic spell and formula treatment that Wecker provides.
I’m in no position to question whether Wecker’s take on the Jinni and Arabic folklore is accurate. There’s obviously a push back against the popular culture view of the Genie that grants wishes, and making the Jinni a “fiery” character seems logical given its environment. But for all I know the same problem of simplification exists.
That said, if you’re willing to forgive the book its Disneyfication of Jewish and Arabic culture, you can admire Wecker’s handling of both the Golem and the Jinni. There is something genuine and real in how both Chava and Ahmad approach and explore their new environment and their burgeoning friendship. In particular their sense of loneliness, even when they find each other, gives the novel its emotional core.
It’s also interesting that while the other characters refer to them as Chava and Ahmad, Wecker always labels them as the Golem and the Jinni. It’s a reminder that they will always be outsiders; and while it’s a little depressing, I credit Wecker for not falling into the trap of trying to humanize either character. This is not the story of Pinocchio. Being human – at least in the context of this story – is not something the Golem and the Jinni aspire to.
Unfortunately, once the plot kicks into gear about two thirds of the way through, much of the nuance around the Golem and Jinni’s relationship, including where they fit in the great scheme of things, gets lost in a battle of good and evil, wizards and magic spells, evil laughter and evil schemes. In other words all a bit Disney. Which is a shame because in amongst the caricatures and the broad cultural strokes, we have a quirky and unique love story about a Golem and a Jinni.