The Golem and the Djinni by Helene WeckerThe Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker
Published by Blue Door on April 23rd, 2013
Genres: Urban Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Pages: 657

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.

Struggling to make their way in 1899 New York, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their immigrant neighbors while masking their true selves. Meeting by chance, they become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

Marvelous and compulsively readable, The Golem and the Djinni weaves strands of folk mythology, historical fiction, and magical fable into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

4 Stars

A newborn creature made of clay.
An ancient creature made of fire.
Meet by chance in the city that never sleeps.

Helene Wecker drew inspiration from Jewish and Middle Eastern mythology to create a beautifully written story of a cautious golem and a reckless djinni who find themselves in a foreign city in 1899 and find solace in each other’s company. The Golem and the Djinni is a tale of solitude, of capture, of finding a place to fit in, and of friendship.

Chava – a golem, made of clay, and just woken to life – finds herself on a steamship to New York with her owner and master when the latter dies aboard the ship. Without a master, and therefore without a purpose, Chava comes ashore, alone and directionless, until a friendly Rabbi takes her in. Chava is taught how to blend in and, more importantly, how to act on her own will, wishes, and desires, which goes against the very nature of a golem. She is a fleshed out character, refreshing in the way her physical strength clashes with her tentative, insecure nature. When she meets a djinni named Ahmad in the obscurity of New York’s nightlife, Chava has met her opposite. Ahmad is a djinni who was trapped in a flask, due to a powerful enchantment which doomed him to slavery, and longs to run free. The Syrian tinshop he resides in is too small and stuffy for his taste. The djinni is often reckless, inconsiderate, and demands every inch of self-control Chava can muster with his provocative way. Both Chava and Ahmad are fleshed out characters with tragic stories and daily struggles whose slowly blossoming friendship will enchant you in the best way possible.

Golems are creatures of Jewish mythology which are created to protect their masters and fulfil their wishes. Having previously known only little about golems, I was pleased with Wecker’s take on this underhyped creature. Djinnis (or genies) are creatures of Middle Eastern mythology, but in The Golem and the Djinni, you will not get a smoke-like appearance or the grant of 3 wishes. Wecker brought to life a species which roam the deserts, create sandstorms when they engage in battles, and possess the ability to enter human dreams. I don’t know how much of the aspects result from folklore or from the author’s own imagination, but I loved every little detail and horded them like treasures. Overall, I was amazed by the large amount of cultural details that flowed into the making of this book. Besides the distinct religions, the author subtly introduces different cuisines, the process of Jewish mourning or a Syrian wedding, prejudices against Bedouins, and how two cultures regard each other with the same amount of suspicion and distrust. She thoughtfully chose to work with a Syrian Christian minority rather than the country’s Muslim majority and shows the little workings of migrant communities, which Chava and Ahmad are introduced into. The two of them, both unaccustomed to human company, provide a set of very different challenges, which is hilarious to witness.

Arbeely found himself giving a potted history of the life of Christ and the founding of His Church. This was followed by a long, convoluted, and at times quite bitter argument.
“Let me see if I understand correctly now,” the Djinni said at one point. “You and your relations believe that a ghost living in the sky can grant you wishes.”

”That is a gross oversimplification, and you know it.”
“And yet, according to men, we djinn are nothing but children’s tales?”
“This is different. This is about religion and faith.”
“And where exactly is the difference?”

With its wonderful characters, the two seamlessly connected storylines, cultural details and lush setting, and graceful writing, I thought there was no way The Golem and the Djinni could disappoint me. Albeit an engaging read, I did have small issues with the plot itself. First of all, the book is a bit long with a beginning that was too slow, even a tedious at times. Second, there were too many characters from whose point of view the story was unfolded, and combined with omniscient narration, there was a lot of jumping between views and settings. Though I was never confused, it didn’t fit the gentle flow of the story at all.

In a nutshell, The Golem and the Djinni will lead you through an imaginative world of troubled souls, bright city lights, and dark magic. The characters’ storylines are truly touching, the writing is beautiful, and the amount of well-researched mythology and culture is a pleasant surprise.