A Beautiful Story, Masterfully Told,
This review is from: The Golem and the Djinni (Hardcover)
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Helene Wecker's début, The Golem & The Djinni, is a masterfully told tale of magic, mystery and a little bit of romance, set to the backdrop of late 19th century New York. It tells the story of two magical creatures, one a a Djinni recently released from a lamp after hundreds of years of captivity, let loose on an unfamiliar landscape thousands of miles from home, the other a Golem, brought to life but left masterless, terrified and alone. Despite these mythic protagonists and a plot with plenty of spells and sorcery, what makes it such a special book is just how human the Golem and the Djinni are. It's a raw and emotional tale, one that needs to be experienced.
Our two protagonists are as different in personality as they are in form. The Djinni is a being of fire, once free to roam the deserts, living solely for pleasure, now trapped in the body of a man in a wet and cold city. He rages at the man who captured him, though he has no memory of it, and curses the humans he is forced to blend in with. The Golem, meanwhile, is a creature of clay. Created to serve and only a few days old, she is masterless, afraid and lost in a sea of people whose deepest desires she can hear. This contrast is the foundation of The Golem & The Djinni, and one that is expressed beautifully and profoundly, even before these two characters ever meet. And when they do, it doesn't go smoothly. He is delighted to find another non-human, and eager to find out all he can about her, whilst she wants nothing to do with him, terrified he will reveal what she is and destroy the quiet life she has built for herself. It's a will-they-won't-they relationship that goes far beyond the usual romantic ploddings, and into something complex and compelling.
It's not all character study and relationship development, though. There's plenty of drama, action and suspense, too, from humans discovering our protagonists' secrets, to the machinations of Yehudah Schaalman. Schaalman is the Golem's creator, and he makes the perilous journey across the Atlantic to reclaim his creation and discover the secret of eternal life. And what a nasty piece of work he is. Malevolent and sadistic, he's a despicable character, but thanks to Wecker's skill as a writer and the use of flashbacks, he is also a deep, brilliant, damaged human being, turned away by God, he stalks the earth in fear, desperately searching for the blackest magic to hold back death. Multi-dimensional and sympathetic, he is yet another contrast for the Golem and the Djinni's characters, and one of the best antagonists in recent memory. There's so much character history here, for both Schaalman and the Djinni (not the Golem, as she has no history), which fleshes out the characters, whilst remaining integral to the plot and exciting.
There are plenty of other characters worthy of a mention - it's a character driven tale - such as the old Rabbi who mentors the Golem on being a human, the hilarious husband and wife team that take her on at the bakery, the blacksmith that releases the Djinni from his prison and gives him a home, and the crippled beggar that was once a doctor and sees the Djinni as he really is. And dozens of others, all of them real, all of them flawed, all of them human, and all of them interesting, but sadly too many to discuss in this little review. It's a testament the book and the author, that many detailed and memorable characters in one story set mostly in two different streets in New York.
It's easy to go on about the merits of The Golem & The Djinni, and I'm all too happy to, but it's more difficult to find the flaws. Maybe the overuse of the word "chagrined", which begins to grate after only a few chapters. Or maybe the lack of pace in the middle, where it is over-focussed on everyday life and feels a little slow, or the ending that so neatly ties all the strands together in a, admittedly satisfying, bow. But these are hardly flaws at all.
The Golem & The Djinni is a special novel, one that mixes magic with real human life beautifully. It's not a fast read, but that's because you'll want to savour it all. Unmissable.