Unique Tale Combines Fantasy and Folklore

According to legend, the maiden Scheherazade avoided death by a vengeful King by telling amazing tales for 1001 nights.  Had modern author Helene Wecker been in the same position, she too would have prevailed with her mesmerizing story, The Golem and the Jinni.  Part historical fiction, part fantasy and part love story, this novel is one of the most unforgettable books I’ve read.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, 2013
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, 2013

Post format:  Q&A

Why is this novel historical fiction?  The Golem and the Jinni is set in 1899 in New York City.  The book introduces readers to immigrants journeying to America, the city’s landmarks of the day, and the customs of the religious and ethnic groups living in 1890s Manhattan.   Wecker didn’t just draw this stuff out of a hat either.  Of the seven years she spent writing the book, she estimates two were spent on research.

Why is this novel fantasy?  For starters, neither of the title characters are human. A golem is a clay creature brought to life by magic, according to Jewish folklore. A jinni is a spirit that can assume animal or human form, according to Arabic theology.

Much of the novel was set in Little Syria, an area of New York populated by Middle Eastern immigrants like this street peddler.
Much of the novel is set in Little Syria, an area of New York populated by Middle Eastern immigrants like this street peddler.

In the novel, a Prussian rabbi who dabbles in “the more dangerous of the Kabbalistic arts” creates the golem as a special order bride for a lonely Jewish man heading to America.  The man dies on the journey.  The life-like golem must fend for herself upon arrival in the big city until a wise rabbi recognizes her for what she is. He gives her safe haven as well as a name: Chava.

Arabian Nights
Jewish as well as Middle Eastern folklore like the stories found in THE ARABIAN NIGHTS make their way into this novel.

The jinni or genie is the other supernatural character.  Trapped for 1,000 years in a copper flask, a Lebanese tinsmith inadvertently releases him.  Aside from the “trapped in a bottle” element, the author goes out of her way to distinguish him from genies of popular culture.  He’s not blue (in fact he’s quite handsome).  He doesn’t grant wishes (Instead, he’s incredibly selfish.)  And he’s stuck in human form because of a 1,000 year old curse. He is called Ahmad.

Why is this novel a love story?  Suspense, magic, and the truly evil acts of the Jinni’s master all combine to make this a thrilling read. But it is the relationship between Chava and Ahmad, the disparate title characters that endeared this novel to me.  They are the most human, non-human beings I’ve encountered in literature.  Consequently, their slow, troubled, and finally triumphant relationship was both genuine and enchanting.

BONUS BIT:  Wecker is releasing The Iron Season, a sequel in 2018.  It’s a wait, but I’ll be in line.

QUESTION:   This novel was recommended to me by a reader (Thanks, Mark!).  I’m compiling a list of book recommendations.  Care to suggest any?

3 thoughts on “Unique Tale Combines Fantasy and Folklore

  • September 3, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    The book: Unbroken
    A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is a 2010 non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling book Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001). Unbroken is a biography of World War II hero Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic track star who survived a plane crash in the Pacific theater, spent 47 days drifting on a raft, and then survived more than two and a half years as a prisoner of war in three brutal Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.

    One of my favorite books! My 16 year old son also read it and enjoyed it.

    Also, “The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom and Ted Dekker’s “Black, Red, White” circle trilogy.

    • September 4, 2016 at 10:48 am

      Hey Kim. These are great suggestions! I’ve read Unbroken and The Hiding Place. They are amazing books that I feel everyone should read. I plan to do a post on The Hiding Place, so keep an eye out.

      • September 4, 2016 at 1:37 pm

        Can’t wait to see your post on The Hiding Place!


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