Beautifully entwining the folklore of two cultures, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker takes place in turn of the 19th century New York City. Immigrants of different backgrounds pour into the city every day, bringing their customs and magic with them. A gentle golem named Chava and a listless jinni named Ahmad each find themselves unexpectedly in the same part of the world. How long until their paths cross and what will happen when they do?
Genre: Historical fantasy
Who should read it: New Yorkers, who will recognize many of the landmarks, enthusiasts of folklore and religious mysticism.
You may like it if you like: The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, but for adult readers
Chava – A golem—a being from Jewish folklore sculpted from clay and imbued with life to do its master’s bidding. When Chava’s master dies on the ship to New York City shortly after awakening her, she hardly knows what to do with herself.
Ahmad – A jinni—a fiery being from Arabic and Muslim mythology who finds himself suddenly released from a captivity he has no memory of, in the middle of New York City, centuries and miles away from his last waking moment.
Yehuda Shaalman – A learned but amoral Jewish scholar who builds the golem for a paying customer. For some reason, this creation stands out in his mind among all his other sinister projects, and he eventually follows her to New York as part of his quest to defeat death.
Rabbi Avram Meyer – A kindly old rabbi who takes Chava under his wing when he finds her alone and only two days old in New York.
Boutrous Arbeely – A young Syrian tinsmith who unwittingly releases the jinni Ahmad from his lamp. Arbeely becomes the closest thing Ahmad has to a friend, at least until he meets Chava.
Chava and Ahmad spend the first chunk of the novel struggling to pass as human with the help of their respective mentors. Later, as these two immortal beings attempt to entertain themselves in what has not yet truly become the City That Never Sleeps, they inevitably run into each other and form a tenuous friendship. Meanwhile, Yehuda Shaalman’s backstory slowly fills in and Ahmad’s missing memories begin to piece together. Exposure and boredom may not be all that Chava and Ahmad have to fear.
The multiple storylines were all compelling and each character had an intriguing pull. Unlike many works with several POV, there was no one thread that had me wishing to skip ahead to the others, although each cliffhanger had me wanting more. Wecker is marvelous at answering questions left open by one character’s storyline with information from another.
She also does an excellent job juxtaposing multiple cultures, showing the beauty of each and the similarities that transcend and link them. From the Lower East Side to Little Syria, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, events and experiences in The Golem and the Jinni are not as disparate as they seem.
Are you familiar with the myths of golems and jinn? Are there any other mythological mashups you’d love to read about? Shout ‘em out in the comments!
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