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.
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.
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.
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?