“On a cloudless night, inky dark, with only a rind of a moon above, the Golem and the Jinni went walking together along the Prince Street rooftops.”
–The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker
I rather loved this book. After the first chapter, I was like, I don’t like any of these characters and I don’t want to read this any more. Then I read two more chapters, and I was like, I have to finish this whole book right now so I can find out what happens. I’ve always loved fantasy, and in my view there are three common types of fantasy books: the kind set entirely in a made-up world (aka “high fantasy,” although I dislike that name), the kind where characters from our world stumble into another world (aka “portal fantasy”), and the kind where a fantastic being roams our world in secret (I don’t know a specific name for this although I’m sure there is one). This last is a common storyline in old folk tales and legends, and has lately become more popular in novels with the resurgence of vampire stories. The Golem and the Jinni doesn’t really address the idea of entire secret societies of powerful-outsider types, but focuses instead on the feeling of being an outsider in an otherwise homogenous world. It is a terrifying feeling for social creatures like humans, and one I think most people experience at some point, so the two title characters are a rich emotional source for readers.
I already knew what golems and jinnis were, but in case you don’t, I’ll explain. The golem is a Jewish creature. It is created by someone learned in the dark mystical arts, preferably only in direst need. It is shaped of clay, as humans are in the Judeo-christian creation stories, and animated–here’s the lovely part–by a word or character, written down and placed in the clay figure’s mouth or forehead. A golem’s purpose is as a sort of slave/guardian. They are terribly strong, and most of the tales that feature them involve them spinning out of control and becoming incredibly destructive–much like modern tales of advanced computers that unexpectedly become malevolent. Luckily, there is always a way to destroy a golem, usually by removing the slip of paper that animates it. This mythical creature, animated by words, has always seemed to me to be the private monster of authors. What writer or artist has not been tormented by fears of a creation that, in interactions with the outside world, becomes too powerful to control?
Jinnis, more commonly spelled genies, and spelled djinn in the fairy tales of my childhood, are Arabian in origin. In the Islamic mythos (although evidence suggests that they pre-date organized Islam), they are fire elementals, created by God along with angels and humans, and in possession of free will. You might best know them from Aladdin.
So, this is the story of a golem and a jinni who both find themselves in New York City circa 1899, masquerading as humans. The author, who is Jewish with an Arab American husband, says in the notes at the end of the novel that she wanted to write a story about immigration, but found it didn’t work until she made it something like the books she liked to read, with a touch of the supernatural. “In some ways,” she writes, “the Golem and the Jinni are the ultimate immigrants. They aren’t just new to New York or America; they’re new to people.”
This is Helene Wecker’s first novel, and according to the notes, it took her seven years to write. The characters, even the supporting ones, are complex, and the story is full of simple, slow, human things like getting a job and going for a walk. It is driven forward, not by action, but by character development. The Golem, compliant by nature, wonders if people’s desires actually fit their needs. The Jinni, used to a life of solitary self-indulgence, sees that his actions have repercussions for other people. Both characters, in becoming part of a community for the first time, are surprised at how much that community becomes a part of them.