This enjoyable fantasy novel, set in New York City at the end of the Nineteenth Century centres on the immigrant communities settling in to the New World, and especially on two very unusual migrants who have more difficulties than most in fitting in to the American life.
The set up, a Golem (settled in the Jewish community, of course) and a Genie (not living the Muslim community, as perhaps might be expected, but with a Syrian Christian) are thrown into the world of 1899 New York and are forced to adapt to a society and way of life they are unprepared for.
It is not true, or fair, to say that the slow description of how these mythical creatures gradually learn how to interact with the mortals around them interupts the story of the Golem and Genie finding out the secrets of their origins. In fact, this slow description, with thumbnail sketches of the human inhabitants of the immigrant ghettos, makes up the bulk of this novel. The relationships of the two main characters, particularly with each other, are the author's main subject.
When the twin storylines of the Golem and Genie's past converge, this plot is clever and interesting, an involving fantasy tale that also uses the other, minor characters established so well by the author.
Some thoughtful philosophising (eg p 192) is rather dismissive of religion in general and, considering the reaction to , say, "The Satanic Verses", perhaps explains why the Djinni didn't fall into a Muslim household. This area is not over-emphasised in any way but does add interest.
The denouement is well done and ties all the elements, the mundane human characters' lives and the two monstrous heroes' storylines together.
I must admit to gobbling up Helene Wecker's delicious, sprawling-yet-tightly plotted account of the meeting of two mythological creatures from two different cultural and religious traditions - The Golem from Kabbalah/Central European Judaism , the Djinn from Bedouin/Middle East/Islamic as if it were the fabulously tasting confection it is, and I were a sweet toothed literary addict starved of my life-line supply of a tall deep tale excellently told.
The reading far into the night, the laying aside of tasks which needed to be done, the rushing away from social encounters to indulge my fierce craving to read on and on and on, is finally over, the book finished Blast. Blast! BLAST! It's her first novel too - there are no earlier ones to discover hidden in the confection box
Wecker tells a tall, yet beautifully grounded in reality tale of the Golem, a creature fashioned by man, not by God, from clay (like Adam) but to serve his or her master like a slave. Golems are allowed no desire but that of their master. Hugely powerful, enslaved though they are, if angered, they are an unstoppable force, a Frankenstein's monster indeed. This particular Golem is female, and is also constructed with intelligence and curiosity - and an overwhelming sense of empathy, so she is pulled hither and thither by the different, competing wants and desires of people's thoughts.
Set against this proper creature of earth, learning to restrain the voices in her head, the competing empathic sense towards the denizens of her environment, is the fiery untamed voice of freedom to indulge desire, with no responsibility, with no sense of the wrong done to other, as represented by an ancient Djinni (the genie figure of Aladdin's Lamp is one such creature). Our Djinni, like the Golem, has also been enslaved. He was his own creature, bound by magic, she was created by magic, and is learning to impose a certain freedom of choice in seeking to tame her own destructive side, in learning how to turn down the clamouring, conflicting needs and wants of the people she comes across. Her compassion is her cross to bear, as much as her potential for destruction. The Djinni's journey is to learn to accept that merely indulging one's own whim, may also cause devastation.
Our two protagonists are embedding in a rich immigrant community - Jews from Europe, Maronite and Eastern Orthodox Christians from Syria, interspersed with the Djinn's 1000 year old history in the desert, and Islamic culture
How Wecker weaves all this together, as intricately, beautifully and satisfyingly as the Golem's bakery skills or the Djinni's artistic metal-work creations; it is a wonderful thing to read. There is a dark, believable story, there are metaphysical concepts about how free any of us are - bound by our own nature, how much of our choices do we really make, where does the ultimate responsibility lie? And if we do an evil or a thoughtless act, because of our natures, how much of all the events that transpire are our fault, how much do other peoples' choices also contribute to where responsibility lies?
I can't praise this highly enough. It is a gorgeous, page turning, remarkably easy read, which is at the same time 'about stuff' - as indeed myths often are, with their meaning, like icebergs, lying below the surface and waiting to ambush us - another 'subtext' in this book, is how we view 'other' - set amongst a largely multi-immigrant community, the Golem and the Djinni also shows us the narrowness and closed-mindedness of each of us to the outsider
And how I wish I had not yet read it, and had this wondrous journey to begin! O still-to-read-this person - how I envy you!
The name 'Djinni' drew me instantly to this book, being a huge fan of the Bartimaeus books (even though my enthusiasm was initially tempered by the dubious comparison to 'A Discovery Of Witches' which was, quite frankly, awful). At first glance the title of this book might suggest another of those 'fusion' stories, where different traditions and myths of fantasy are thrown together for the sake of shallow originality. But not so with 'The Golem and the Djinni'.
The story intrigues from the first page, the prose rich and immersive without becoming florid. At first the narrative is streamlined, focused on the paths of the two titular characters, but gradually more and more people enter into the fold (I hesitate to call them 'sub-plots', for they all weave a spiderweb in the end). One of the best strengths of this book is that it is so difficult to predict its end or even what'll happen on the next page, allowing the reader to fall completely into the story and let it take them where it will. The one twist is equally surprising and satisfying, and helps to make the story's antagonist a much more fascinating character. In fact, the antagonist is another strength of the book, at times seemingly about to redeem themselves, then revealing another layer of motivation beneath.
A special mention has to be given to the story's setting, in 1899 New York. Its everyday life, both for its Jewish and native residents, is clearly well-researched and beautifully-evoked. I don't know why the author chose New York, but it only serves to immerse the reader deeper.
'The Golem and the Djinni' was, for me, not one of those fast-paced novels that consumes your life till you've finished it. It was not painful to put down to return to later; but it was extremely enjoyable to read, and quite simply, I can't think of anything that was wrong with it. The only thing I would criticise would be the blurb - I think this is one of those rare novels that shouldn't have a blurb, beyond explaining the initial situations/backgrounds of the Golem and the Djinni.
An impressive debut that deserves a full five stars.
To be honest this wasn't a book that immediately appealed to me. I am a fan of both fantasy and science fiction, and yet the sub-genre of magic reality books tends to leave me cold. I am however rather glad I picked it up.
The plot involves the arrival of two supernatural but human seeming beings (the golem and the djinni,) and their struggles to fit into society without revealing their true natures. The story is well written and plotted episodically with the narrative moving between the different characters.
For me the star of the show is turn of the century New York. Lovingly brought to life. It's almost as if you can hear the babble of multiple languages and feel the crowds moving past you whilst you read.
I find it hard to believe that this is the author's first book to be published, as the writing here seems much more accomplished than is the case with certain writers who have many more credits to their name. All I can say is that this book deserves to be a hit. Only time will tell if it is one.
This is a most unusual story which I enjoyed reading. A golem & a djinni both end up living in New York in 1899. They try to keep their true selves hidden and live ordinary lives but it isn't quite that simple.
In some ways this is quite a slow book. Very little of note seems to happen yet the reader is carried along in an easy flowing story concerning the lives - both past & present - of Chava the Golem & Ahmad the Djinni.This isn't an all action story though the last quarter of the book does speed up to a climax. This is a book about discovery - Chava & Ahmad discover who they are and how they are slaves to their true nature.
Chava is a wonderful character. She hears people's thoughts and wishes and struggles against the constant hum of thoughts in her mind. I did think it a trifle unlikely that anyone could create a clay creature who passed as human but this is a fantasy book so if I can accept the djinni then I can accept this wonderous clay woman! Chava is curious yet happy to be subservient - working in a bakery during the day and sewing by night. This all changes when she meets Ahmad. Ahmad has a different personality. He strains against the constraints of a human lifestyle and longs for more. There are a host of supporting characters who help to bring excellent structure to the story and bring it to life.
The author obviously worked hard to create the world in which the characters lived. The cosmopolitan world that was New York at the time was beautifully described with the restrictions of the Jewish life sitting alongside the Orthodox Christian world. I was left with the impression of a series of small countries sitting side by side in one city. It seemed possible that people lived their whole lives within their small cultural niche without ever needing to journey to the larger city as a whole.
This is a very rich book - rich in characters, description, culture, legend and history.It was a real pleasure to read.
on 3 July 2014
This is a rather inventive novel, that combines the disparate supernatural folklore of a golem (a clay being magically formed to serve a master) and the more familiar jinni. That both these magical beings collide in New York at the end of the 19th century makes for an immediately arresting premise.
Wecker manages to make her ambitious fantastical novel work because she does her homework well, giving distinct histories and backgrounds to her two central characters, keeping close to the traits and qualities that these magical beings are traditionally known to possess, and then shrewdly giving them human form, as displaced immigrants with separate cultural backgrounds.
And lastly, she also assigns different genders to the golem and the jinni, which prepares the reader for an interesting and complicated relationship between them. The golem is fashioned as a woman by twisted Rabbi Schaalman with a dubious wizarding history for a rich but intolerable Prussian Jew from Danzig, Rotfeld, who desires the golem for a wife. When Rotfeld wakes her while on the voyage from Poland to NY, he unfortunately dies and she is left without a master/husband. Thankfully she meets the kindly Rabbi Meyer who sees her for what she is and rescues her from the streets and names her Chava. Meanwhile in another corner called Little Syria in the same city, a tinsmith Arbeely is repairing an innocuous-looking old flask, when out pops the jinni, who vaguely recalls the time before he was trapped in the flask in the Syrian desert about a thousand years ago. Soon he becomes a sort of apprentice and then partner with Arbeely at his shop and adopts the name of Ahmad. When Ahmad and Chava's paths cross, they also discover that they are linked by more than their outsiderness in this strange new world.
It is to Wecker's credit that both their stories are covered rather seamlessly in the inter-chapters, and the pace is kept right to the end. If I have a quibble with the narrative, it would be the sudden (and inappropriate) moments of lightness in the midst of life-threatening events and pivotal scenes. While at times illuminating Ahmad's lackadaisical nature or the stiff-upper-lipped demeanour of Chava, I felt the attempted irreverence made for uneasy humour, which is unlikely what the author intended.
on 25 August 2014
This novel combines two different folklore traditions into a narrative about immigration and finding one's place. Through exploring the very different experiences of a masterless golem and a djinni bound in human form, this lyrical and intelligent novel questions what it means to be human. Set in New York in 1899, Helene Wecker uses the two folkloric creatures to probe questions of fitting in and relating to others.
I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it to readers of fantasy but also those who enjoy contemporary literary novels. Comparisons to Susanna Clarke's fabulous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are justified (although this is both shorter in length and perhaps smaller in scope).
The writing is superb. The story is narrated in the third person, which allows us access to various characters' perspectives. Although both title characters do have negative qualities (from a human perspective), and both make mistakes, they both have our sympathies for at least part of the narrative, thanks to this close access to them. The narrative also sweeps through time and space, encompassing various characters' past experiences, enabling us to see where people have come from.
The plot itself centres on the Golem and Djinni's attempts to live without drawing undue attention to themselves - or going mad from the pressures upon them. Imagine if you didn't need to sleep? How would you fill the nighttimes? Details such as this are what drive the plot to its eventual crisis point. There are parts where the pace is a little slow, but the gorgeous writing and skilful character development make up for this. Overall, this is definitely a book to lose yourself in.
A very enjoyable fantasy novel, set in New York at the turn of the 20th century. The title characters have very different natures, but both face the challenge of trying to pass themselves off as human in the baffling world of a big city. They are interesting and well drawn characters, and are surrounded by a very strong cast of human characters. It's a little slow and could have been a bit shorter, but picks up in the second half and becomes very gripping as all the apparently disparate strands of plot come together.
The blend of real world and make-believe works very well. As with 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' (which this book reminded me of), the setting is familiar enough to draw readers in but different enough to add to the magic and make the mystical elements easier to buy into. It's written in a style that is easy to read and holds the attention, evoking a strong sense of place. The plot is original and has some unexpected twists and turns. It's not a sugary fairy tale, and there is genuine drama and tragedy along the way.
Free will is an important theme of the novel, and whether people have a 'true nature' that can be followed or defied. It's an issue that is explored without being fully answered - which is fine as it's not really an answerable question. Both the golem and djinni manage to adapt to some extent, but without ever entirely escaping their essential features. Wecker has the skill of making you like and sympathise with a character whilst also showing their flaws and less admirable behaviour.
The introduction of a sinister villain who adds a real sense of threat and urgency to proceedings is the catalyst for a gripping final section. The 'setting up' phase of the book is a little overlong - it's pleasurable enough to read as the writing is good, but the novel lacks direction and it's not clear for a long time where the story is going or indeed if it is going to go anywhere. However this is one of those novels where investment of reading time in the early stages does pay off, as nothing is irrelevant - the minor characters and storylines do all end up coming together. I'd have found those early chapters more satisfying if I'd known that.
I'd definitely recommend this to readers who enjoy fantasy and adventure stories, especially those who enjoyed 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell', or to adult readers who like Harry Potter or Diana Wynne Jones, as this is a more grown up version of those. I'll be reading the author's next novel with interest.
I always look out for books which incorporate flights of fancy in their makeup, and this one seemed to fit the bill.
In 1899 in New York, two disparate creatures arrive in the city. One, a golem created in Poland, whose master dies en route. She is taken in and cared for by Rabbi Meyer in the Jewish neighbourhood of New York. The other, a jinni whose life had been lived in the Syrian desert, released from an old copper flask by a tinsmith Boutros Arbeely; how he got there the jinni cannot recall.
This book follows a delightful story of these two very different beings trying to find and make their way in a new environment filled with very different people, each struggling to make sense of the world in which they unwittingly find themselves. Along the way we also meet other characters, each unique and troubled in their own ways; the Rabbi's newphew Michael, the tragic ice cream maker Saleh, and Yehudah Schaalman, driven to find what became of the golem he created. And around them all the city hums with its diverse immigrants and cultures.
This is a book filled with wonder and delight; the sounds, smells and tastes of late nineteenth century New York, the cultural diversity and the strangeness of it all to the immigrants; mingled with that the other world experience of the jinni and the newly born wonder of the golem. Slowly the story builds to a confrontation, a clash of civilisations - old, new, known and unknown as everybody tries to find their own peace and salvation in this strange new world.
It's hard to believe this is the author's first book - the writing is assured, the characterisation complete, the narrative well paced and flowing. A wonderful, enchanting read.
on 28 January 2014
Helene Wecker’s novel about two unusual immigrants is mainly set in New York City around 1900 and she takes you right there. In The Golem and the Djinni, you’ll visit cramped, stuffy tenements as well as stately, airy mansions. You will explore a city that you’ve probably never seen before. Ms. Wecker has a gift for setting. I only wished there would have been a map somewhere in the book to place all the streets and to get a feeling for the distances the characters traveled.
The novel follows the two main characters, a female golem and a male djinni, on their search for freedom and happiness. Chava, the golem, is new to life. She learns fast and adapts to the Jewish immigrant society quickly. Her greatest fear is to hurt someone and so Chava stays wary. Ahmad, the djinni, was free to do whatever he wanted and now he is trapped in human form. His self-conscious and impatient character makes him roam New York City night after night. While Chava wants to be like anyone else, Ahmad only wants to be free again to return home to Syria.
In my opinion, these two main characters are the archetypal immigrants. They are very different from the rest of the people already living in the U.S.. Chava comes to stay and to make a living. She wants to fit in and still has to learn everything to survive. Ahmad is in the U.S. with the goal to return to Syria as soon as he is free again. He resembles those immigrants who came to America to work and make money just to return home again, although lots of them stayed in the end.
As you can see, The Golem and the Djinni is a novel about immigration and different cultures in New York City around 1900, but this book has even more to offer. It is a book about friendship and trust and it’s a riveting read.