Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker)

I think I'm going to struggle with the review for this book because I have spent the past three days wishing I could go swimming in it. The last time I felt this way wasn't too long ago (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), but feelings like this are not very common. So when the wonderful book comes along that makes me hesitate to begin reading something else comes along, I cherish it.

Our scene is 1899, New York City. A Polish man dies during the boat ride to America, leaving behind his recently-awakened golem wife (a golem, if you're unclear, is a giant creature made of clay whose job it is to protect its master and do its master's bidding, a very Jewish-mysticism thing). She jumps off the boat, and swims ashore, overwhelmed by all the wants and fears of people around her--as a masterless creature, she feels compelled to help everyone. A kind rabbi rescues her from a near-problematic incident involving food theft and takes her in, trying to train her to deal with the world around her.

Meanwhile, in Little Syria, a tinsmith accidentally unleashes a trapped jinni (or djinn or genie or djinni depending on how you're feeling, but we've all seen Aladdin I'm betting and therefore have the basic concept, right?) from an heirloom lamp. The man has no memory of the past millenium-and-some, having been trapped since the sixth century. He also cannot remember the time immediately preceding his capture, so he has no idea who captured him or how. But he is talented with metal (owing to his supernaturally warm body because he is a fire spirit) so he stays on as an apprentice, also trying to adjust to human life.

The book unfolds as we observe the two unnatural beings try to adjust to the life of a human. The entire novel is beautiful--the Golem and the Jinni are both flawed and lovable and their supporting casts are almost as luminescent as they are. As just a plain old story, it works great--it is a slow build to a rather actiony climax with an ending that is beyond satisfying. But it's literary, too: in the midst of all this incredible character-building and world-displaying, we are getting all sorts of thought-provoking meditations on things like humanity and free will and even perhaps my favorite motif in the whole world, the cyclical nature of time.

There's a plot twist near the end that doesn't feel even remotely tacked-on; it's a surprise but a logical one, on a J.K. Rowling level of planned-ness (and this is clearly the highest praise I can give, because who does foreshadowing and clue-dropping better than her, right?). The romance that takes place is well-crafted, which is incredibly difficult to do (I say this because I've been reading too much YA where everything seems to be "and suddenly we were in love"), and even that manages to be a literary observation about humanity.

And then we have the historical fiction aspects--Wecker gives us quite the grand tour of New York at the turn of the century, and it ensnared me. I hate the question "if you could live in any one time, what would it be?" because for me it's so obviously the present with all its scientific innovations, etc., but a book like The Golem and the Jinni is almost persuasive enough to make me change my answer. In this regard (and in terms of the well-written relationships, too), I'm reminded strongly of The River of No Return (which is also high praise because that book is the bomb). The author's precision in capturing the atmosphere of the moment is one among many of the book's alluring successes.

Seriously, I'm struggling to find a single thing wrong with the book. I mean, I'm looking for something negative and there is just nothing. Helene Wecker's debut is a beautiful, ornate creation, reminiscent of one of the Jinni's own metalwork pieces of art: delicate, intricate and aglow with life.

My rating: 5/5
The Golem and the Jinni on Goodreads 
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