It can be very daunting to write a reviews for a book like this - one that is intricate, full of depth and brimming with atmosphere. Reading such a book becomes a personal experience; one you loved, and to translate that love into coherent thought can be a very difficult task. This is the situation I find myself in, regarding The Golem and the Jinni. It's a slower-paced historical fantasy set in a fascinating time, and told by a talented author. It's long, but then at the same time, not nearly long enough. Helene Wecker ably spins an unusual and captivating tale, one with tinges of Arab and Jewish culture, into a novel that is as compulsively readable as the blurb would have you believe. A more disparate pair than the eponymous Jinni and Golem would be hard to find, but these two beings each bring something special to the experience. With style and obvious capability and through these two non-human characters, Wecker paints a vivid picture of what it is to be an immigrant in an unknown and unfamiliar world.
The Golem and the Jinni is an usual, original and creative fantasy. Unlike most fantasy stories, which feature human protagonists in strange and magical worlds, Helene Wecker's debut has two strange and magical beings exploring the human world in 1900's New York. Both "Chava" - the golem - and "Ahmad" - the Jinni - find themselves adrift and purposeless in a world they're utterly unprepared for; one full of wants and needs and pressures they are completely unfamiliar with and struggle to deal with as hiding their true nature takes its toll. Each character's experience with the human condition are unique; Chava is newmade, a person literally without a history. Ahmad, with hundreds of years of life behind him and centuries more to come, has incalculable history and experience. Chava is modest, considerate, and always aware of the damage she could wreak. Ahmad is again her opposite - utterly unconcerned with the personal impact he has on mortals that cross his path. Despite their obvious and numerous differences, the two supernatural creatures are drawn together and form a friendship that bolsters their morale.
The relationship between Ahmad and Chava is a complex, and one that evolves later in the story, though it is pivotal to both their lives and the plot that Wecker has so subtly woven around them. Though they each encounter a different spectrum of experience as they try to make their way in a large, industrial city, their respective struggles for recognition and a purpose are much the same. Forced to lie, pretend, and hide their natural impulses with nearly everyone else, in each other the golem and the Jinni find a confidant; someone who knows the truth of them and does not flinch, abuse them for power, or flee in terror. They really, truly need one another - their relationship is authentic and real, because only with the other can they truly be themselves. I really enjoyed the depth of their relationship - by no means is it an easy and perfect connection. Chava struggles with her nature and what she needs in life to feel complete, and Ahmad struggles with the limited abilities of his forced form. They bicker, fight, and argue between themselves about how to live as supernaturals in a natural world. Their experiences and struggles fully showcase how frightening it would be to find yourself overwhelmed by circumstances and to have to live without control over your destiny.
Both subtly magical, and mythical, The Golem and the Jinni excels at crafting a wide array of characters, as well as showcasing 19th century New York. The occasional flashbacks, though not as common as I'd hoped, were excellent additions to the current story and illustrated Ahmad's tumultuous past in the deserts of ancient Syria. The hints of culture and history that are integrated into the lives of the people around them (Ahmad is taken in by a Syrian metalsmith, and Chava by a Jewish Rabbi) are both woven into the story, and each culture shapes the creatures in their current life. Though the Golem and the Jinni focuses closely on the eponymous pair, the larger cast shown around them is a lively and three-dimensional bunch. I can't think of two more different cultures than Syrian and Polish Jews, but Wecker intertwines the two seamlessly.
The antagonist of the story is just as compelling as his counterparts, and can more than hold his own against them both. Yehudah Schaalman is a quiet but unrelenting force of malice in the story from the first pages of its inception. He's one of my favorite kind of villains - smart, capable, and crafty. The Golem and the Jinni is an admittedly slower-paced book, relying more on characters and atmosphere to propel the plot, but Schaalman loses none of his menace despite the time it takes to involve him in the storyline. In a novel about mystical beings, it ends up being a human man that is the most inhumane of all. I don't want to spoil anything for anyone about how it all comes to a head in the final, desperate part of the novel, but this is an antagonist that will surprise you. All I will say is hats off to Helene Wecker for crafting such a dynamic and unexpected character.
The Golem and the Jinni is one of those rare books with which I have nothing to complain about. The beginning is slow and measured, but oozes atmosphere. The characters are alien and different, but their inner monologues show how human they really are. Themes and mythology, history and culture, ancient history and "current" lives - all are interwoven into a story of remarkable depth and beauty. For a debut novel, this is a polished, perfected and wonderful offering. The narrative is compelling, the prose lovely, and the characters are truly one of a kind. I don't think I will read another novel even remotely like this anytime soon. An improbably friendship is the cornerstone of the novel, but everything within the 500-page length of the Golem and the Jinni is engrossing. It's impossible to put down. I'm sad I'll never get to experience it for the first time again (any other book readers feel that way? No? Just me? Ok.), but I look forward to all the new things I will notice in my rereads of this nuanced and well-developed story.