Friday, 30 August 2013

Book Review | The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

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 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 and 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.


We are all of us other in one way or another.

That is to say, there are things — many things — which set each and every one of us apart. Our origins and our circumstances aside, people are perfect storms of memories, emotions, beliefs, attitudes and ideals. Where we come from, not to mention when or into what world, is undoubtedly part of the puzzle, but who we are in the manifold moments our lives are made of is what matters.

The Golem and the Djinni is a sumptuous period piece about two brilliantly realised people — others... outsiders... aliens, I dare say, in every which way — who just so happen to be magical creatures. One is made of earth especially to serve at the pleasure of a master who perishes mere moments after awakening her; one is fashioned from fire and lived alone, untold aeons ago, in a magnificent invisible palace. He expects the best; she fears the worst. Both must make their way in a world that would not welcome them if it had the slightest clue what they were.

Welcome, one and all, to New York City at the advent of the 20th century: a fittingly fantastical setting for the incredible events ahead.
The city [...] rose up from the water's edge, the enormous square buildings that reached far into the heavens, their windows set with perfect panes of glass. As fantastical as cities like ash-Sham and al-Quds had seemed from the caravan men's tales, the Djinni doubted that they'd been half so wondrous or terrifying as this New York. If he must be marooned in an unknown land, surrounded by a deadly ocean, and constrained to one weak and imperfect form, at least he'd ended up somewhere worth exploring. (p.30)
This marks a rare moment of positivity for the Djinni, because the rest of the time, he's simply miserable. With good reason, too: he was trapped in a vase for centuries, at the hands of a wicked wizard who he can only imagine used him to do his despicable bidding. He can only imagine, I should stress, because the Djinni has no recollection of the circumstances surrounding his capture. He remembers the desert, then suddenly the shop of dear Boutros Arbeely, an unwitting tinsmith living in Little Syria who takes the Djinni in as an apprentice—for want of a better explanation for his unlikely presence—and names him Ahmad.

Ahmad, however, is far from pleased by the prospect of playing pretend:
"Imagine," he said to Arbeely, "that you are asleep, dreaming your human dreams. And then, when you wake, you find yourself in an unknown place. Your hands and bound, and your feet hobbled, and you're leashed to a stake in the ground. You have no idea who has done this to you, or how. You don't know if you'll ever escape. You are an unimaginable distance from home. And then, a strange creature finds you and says, 'An Arbeely! But I thought Arbeelys were only tales told to children. Quick, you must hide, and pretend to be one of us, for the people here would be frightened of you if they knew.'" (p.45)
Elsewhere in the city, the Golem keeps a similar secret. Creatures such as she are meant to serve, to satisfy certain commands, however Chava has no master. He died at sea, leaving her to plot out her own path... but she has no idea where to start.

Confused and frustrated and afraid, the Golem is about to lash out, when in the nick of time, a kindly old Rabbi finds her, and agrees to to guide her. He teaches Chava how to pass for a person and gets her a job in a local bakery to boot.

These, though, are merely way stations for the Golem and the Djinni, like the Hebrew Sheltering House that plays a pivotal part in the plot later on, "where men fresh from the Old World could pause, and gather their wits, before jumping head-first into the gaping maw of the New." (p.89) This is also the lonesome road travelled by Ahmad and Chava, both of whom—once they have found their feet—move away from their guardians in the course of declaring their respective independence.

She rents a room in a respectable neighbourhood of ladies, for such is her nature... but there, because curiosity and intelligence is also in her nature, the Golem basically goes stir-crazy:
To lie still and silent in such an enclosed space was no easy task. Her fingers and legs would begin to twitch, regardless of how much she tried to relax. Meanwhile, a small army of wants and needs would make their way to her mind: from the boy and the Rabbi, both of whom would give anything for the clock to go faster; from the woman in the room below, who lived in a constant torment of pain from her hip; from the three young children next door, who were forced to share their few toys, and always coveted whatever they didn't have—and, at a more distant remove, from the rest of the tenement, a small city of strivings and lusts and heartaches. And at its centre lay the Golem, listening to it all. (p.51)
The Djinni is little happier in his hovel, until one evening he meets a woman unlike any other. Ahmad is absolutely fascinated by Chava. "He felt strangely buoyant, and more cheerful than he'd been in weeks. This women, this—golem?—was a puzzle waiting to be solved, a mystery better than any mere distraction. He would not leave their next meeting to chance." (p.175) Nor does he. Rather, he resorts to waiting at her window—rolling and smoking cigarettes in the awful woollen hat she insists he wear if they're to spend time together—until the Golem puts aside her proclivities towards certain sensibilities and agrees to explore the new world with him.

They are, of course, kindred spirits. Similar in many senses, and in one another they find something... let's say special, as opposed to romantic. In any case, till this point in the tale, one's narrative has very much mirrored the other's. Both the Golem and the Djinni come to the city in the first instance against their individual will; both become immersed, initially, in the mundanity of reality; both are fast approaching the end of his or her tether when their paths cross; both cause in their chance companions crises of faith; and both have pasts that ultimately catch up with them.

Despite said synchronicities, they are, as it happens, fundamentally different characters. Each fears the end result of the revelation that they are not who they appear to be, "yet she had submitted so meekly, accepting the very imprisonment he fought against. He pitied her; he wanted to push her away." (p.205) And indeed; he does.

But all the while, something wicked this way comes, and if the Golem and the Djinni are to survive the city, they will have to put aside their differences...

An indisputably moving masterpiece of magical realism complete with charismatic characters and a fabulous narrative, The Golem and the Djinni is Helene Wecker's debut, if you can credit it.

There are, I suppose, several ever-so-slight signs. Early on, I grew tired of Wecker's overbearing way of introducing new characters—central, supporting and essentially incidental alike. We're treated to a few purposeless paragraphs in the present, then an extended reminiscence about some crucial point in their pasts, followed by another paragraph or two as indifferent to questions of pace and plot as those with which we began. These brief tales are, to a one, engaging, but cumulatively they serve to slow down the core story.

500 pages later, the denouement proved a mite too tidy for my liking—the difference between gathering narrative threads together and tying every which one up in a contrivance of pretty ribbons seems lost on the author—and whilst Wecker mostly resists the irresistible romance, I wish she had wholly.

But never mind that, because the premise is impeccable—case in point: both the Golem and the Djinni, as others amongst others, come with conflict built-in—the central characters are distinct and comprehensively convincing, the overall plot is finely formed and near-perfectly paced, excepting the aforementioned digressions. And the setting? Simply exemplary. The New York City of The Golem and the Djinni is like a living, breathing creature. Its "trolleys and trains [..] seemed to form a giant, malevolent bellows, inhaling defenseless passengers from platforms and street corners and blowing them out again elsewhere." (p.339) It's as vast and vibrant and violent as any secondary world setting.

Helene Wecker is evidently staggeringly talented, and I can only hope she continues to channel her energies into the fiction of the fantastic. Like The Shadow of the Wind before it, or more recently Alif the Unseen, The Golem and the Djinni is a treasure of a debut that demands attention, and deserves to be spoken of with reverence. It's my pleasure to recommend it unreservedly, and yours, I'm sure, to read it immediately.


The Golem and the Djinni
by Helene Wecker

UK Publication: August 2013, Blue Door
US Publication: April 2013, Harper

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  1. Thanks, Niall. The buzz for this has been mostly positive, and the idea of a fantasy novel set in early 20th C. New York has a lot of appeal for me, as you might imagine.

    1. In the interests of balance, Abigail over at Asking the Wrong Questions responded rather differently to the novel. Pleased to hear you're taken with it all the same. I wouldn't be surprised if it made my year's best books bit...

  2. I don't think I've ever really seen a bad review of this book. (Of course, I haven't specifically looked for one either, so...) I must read it at some point, because I think it's one that I'd enjoy a fair bit! Thanks for the recommendation!