This month, our first female-authored fantasy novel is up for review: Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Jinni. I’ve strolled past this novel innumerable times in my travels through Barnes & Nobles and finally convinced myself to take a peek. As the title suggest, we find ourselves wrapped in a fantasy (similar to 1,001 Arabian Nights) set in Victorian Era New York City. That being said, this novel is much more than fantasy: it’s a story of immigrants living in NYC at the turn of the century and the struggles that Jews, Arabs, and Syrians suffered in this new world.
I’m not going to lie to you, this is a dense book. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. Instead, “dense” for me signifies that it needs to be read slowly and carefully (as did Ancillary Justice which I reviewed last month). The only reason that I would categorize it as dense is that nearly every character that Wecker introduces has a specific, detailed and well-rendered backstory. I have never felt as though I have gotten to know the background of so many ancillary characters with such depth. As such, I applaud the author for creating zero flat characters; all her players are well-rounded and four-dimensional. There are no “evil” or “good” sides in the story but merely people living separate lives that intersect in both negative and positive ways with others around them. As such, the plot of the story is a bit twisted and difficult to follow if you aren’t reading carefully (all characters Helen introduces play vital roles in the conclusion).
I’ve expounded on the most striking elements of her story below, but not even a twenty page review of this work could justify the research and hours that Wecker put into this manuscript.
The amount of visceral detail and description is gob smacking. Wecker brings 19th century New York City to life as we navigate the streets, from Little Syria to the glamorous estates beside Central Park. The characters all bear traces of their native tongues and homes; they find refuge in miniature enclaves of their fellow countrymen within the vastness of city life. It isn’t all pretty, in fact, most of the time it’s dirty and poor and unglamorous and you can just feel the chorus of oppressed voices aching to move beyond their tiny apartments into the wider world. From the telegrams writing to the apartment lighting to the ways in which the characters traverse the streets, the aura of Wecker’s world permeates deep into the reader’s skins.
The Golem and The Jinni:
Unlike some fantasies, The Golem and The Jinni was very much set in the world we know. Though other elements of Wecker’s writing (her characters and their background) were foreign to my own senses, Wecker’s authoritative hand lent a mystical aura to the whole “gritty” aspects of the immigrant experience. The fantasy fell then to the two main characters: the Golem (named Chava) and the Jinni (named Ahmad). The Golem is a creature made of clay originally meant to become the wife of a poor Jewish man from Poland who dies as he crosses the ocean to Ellis Island. The Jinni is a mystical creature made of flame who has been confined to human form by a wizard and transported to NYC in a copper oil container where an unsuspecting iron-worker stumbles upon him. Both are attempting to hide their true natures in New York City (which almost operates as an analogy for those who try to lose their previous cultural identity to adapt to life in America). Still, as the story proves, their true mystical natures come to fruition when they cross paths and find themselves trying to set the other free.
This is the 19th century, a fact I had to remind myself a bit about as I have been recently reading a lot of contemporary fiction. Chava is a powerful female figure (mainly in physicality). Still, she is forced, like many women of the era, to conform to gender roles demonstrated by the humans with whom she lives. She is expected to play housewife, to refrain from feeling pleasure (especially during sex) and to conform to the stereotypical cooking/baking needs of the era. Chava quietly rails against these restraints (not because she is female, but because she is a restless spirit). Across the book, however, we see an assortment of human women breaking the barriers of “decency” in order to explore their sexuality in a time of near-cloying oppression. The Jinni, though represented as male in his human form, demonstrates a fluidity with sexuality and an acknowledgement that everyone should control their own life and experiences. Still, he maintains an air of superiority to those around him (however, this is mainly due to his powers as a jinni rather than his status as a male in human society).
Wecker combines mystical lore from a variety of cultures and does so with a careful hand. In one episode, she speaks of a diversity of legends in the world associated with “eternal life”. The book itself is an ode to reincarnation and immortality, to the cusp of the industrial era and the strange magical powers characters emit. Though the novel toes the line of potential love story, the love (in a romantic way) does not come to fruition within the novel. Instead, as readers, we find ourselves falling into friendships with the characters just as Chava and Ahmad do: knowing the souls of another before truly finding attraction. It’s a beautiful, rich novel that uses fantasy and magic as a kind of metaphor and Wecker pulls it off beautifully (though a few threads are left unanswered). 4 out of 5 stars!