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The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

All the best books have that moment near the end when your breath catches and your hands clench on the pages, or the edges of your e-reader: the moment when the climax begins, when the long-running threads of story start to weave themselves together more and more tightly, building to the end, and you know that, whether you have twenty pages left or two hundred, you won't stop reading till you're done.

I finished Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni the other day. It's a lovely book, written clearly and simply, so that the author's voice seems elegant and restrained. The story, such as there is, concentrates on the experiences of the two titular mythical creatures in New York in 1899, setting their lives up as a way to talk about immigration and isolation, the experience of belonging to a community, personal freedom and personal responsibility, selflessness and generosity.

The Golem was built to be the perfect wife for a man called Rotfeld who dies within hours of awakening her. The Jinni was trapped by a wizard he does not remember in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula centuries ago. Their stories begin as parallels: they come to New York almost by accident, and find people who believe in their natures, mentors to help them. The Golem becomes a part of the Jewish community in Manhattan, while the Jinni holds himself aloof from Little Syria, interpreting the human community as a chain or a shackle on him. Trapped in human form, the Jinni's chief preoccupation is the loss of the freedom of his true nature - a nature probably best summed up as 'gay and innocent and heartless'. As a Jinni, he's endlessly curious and extremely powerful, but he doesn't grasp the effect his curiosity/actions has on the humans he's curious about.

The Golem is the opposite; it's in her nature as a Golem to perceive the wants and needs of the humans around her. The desire to gratify those wants is a fundamental part of her. So of course it's extremely fitting that she's female, or coded female - the sacrifice of self in service of men others is a trait all the best Victorian novelists gave to their leading ladies. *eyeroll* For me, the Golem's story was not just about fitting in and becoming a part of her community, but also about her gaining both a sense of self outside the expectations of the three men who shaped her life (creator, master and mentor), and... confidence in herself, I suppose, but it's more than that: she who interprets personal freedom as irresponsibility towards others learns the difference between the two, and gains the courage to claim the former without indulging in the latter.

In a way the Jinni comes to meet her from the opposite end of the spectrum. He struggles with human ideas of community and friendship - and even simple gratitude - because his people have no community in that sense; isolation is normal for him, a synonym for freedom. Forced into life as a human, he learns to accept that his actions have repercussions on humans, in human society, in a way that they didn't among the jinn. But in contrast to the Golem, he's not afraid of those repercussions: he'd simply never cared enough about them before.

By the time they meet, we're already nearly a third of the way through the book. I think the wait was worth it; their interactions are the more interesting for the detailed knowledge of their background. Their friendship is tentative at first, and on the Golem's part somewhat fearful (not of the Jinni, but of gossip, of betraying herself, of other people's reactions), but they're both argumentative, strong-willed, and far too prone to enjoying new experiences, and their developing friendship is makes for a lovely read.

The book's other strength is the cast of secondary characters, who are drawn with compassion and fondness: Anna the baker's assistant, Arbeely the tinsmith, Maryam the owner of the coffeehouse, the Rabbi Meyer, his apostate nephew Michael Levy, Ice Cream Saleh, Fadwa al-Hadid, Sophia Winston: I don't think there was any one of them I didn't love. Even the Golem's master/'commissioner' Rotfeld, dead before the end of the first chapter, is given a story; even the evil wizard is allotted some measure of understanding. (But seriously, the dude's an evil wizard who gets what's coming to him, it's great.)

One sour note. Michael Levy's fate felt... a little too pat, too easy. It didn't lessen my enjoyment of the whole, but it didn't quite fit with the author's... honesty, otherwise, in telling the complexities of these people's lives.

tl;dr: The Golem and the Jinni is a lovely, lovely book. No one gets quite the happy ending you want for them - except maybe Sophia? - but it was never really that sort of book in the first place. It's a story about change, and compromise, and hope, and hard work and responsibility. I loved it a lot.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 17th, 2013 03:09 am (UTC)
Oct. 23rd, 2013 12:24 am (UTC)
Just for the title, I must must read this book!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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