Top positive review
Historical fiction with a heavy dose of fantasy
on 4 April 2017
The Golem and the Djinni, by Helene Wecker, is a blend of historical fiction and fantasy. The historical part is set in New York around the year 1900, at which time the city was divided into many segments according to the country of origin of various immigrant groups. The two which are most in view are the Syrian and Jewish areas, with occasional forays up into much more affluent zones.
The fantasy element - highlighted by the book title - comes in two parts. The golem, a manufactured creature derived from Jewish thought, is female in form, and was originally constructed to be wife to an Eastern European immigrant. He dies on board ship, leaving Chava to find her own way through life. Her impulse to obey the unspoken needs and wants of the people around are a constant source of difficulty, as she tries to reconcile conflicting demands.
The djinni represents the Syrian area - a creature of fire, and many centuries old, he was bound long ago into human form by the work of a magician. His struggle is to avoid boredom without being discovered, and also to find a way to unravel the binding.
Inevitably the two come into contact, and try to resolve the two problems at once. They are opposites in many ways - one built for obedience and conformity but having to make her own choices, and the other craving a wild and unrestrained life but having to manage limitation. Around that basic polarity a collection of interesting human characters orbit, and the exploration of cross-cultural New York is itself fascinating. One particular character - perhaps the only one with a malignant agenda, and at times a little cartòonish - comes to dominate the plot line in the later stages, as each of the others decides how to cope with his influence.
All in all a thoroughly enjoyable book, which could appeal to anyone who likes some fantasy stirred in with their history.