Book Review – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

golem and jinni - book coverA friend recommended The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker to me a few weeks ago and after reading the description, I was more than a little intrigued. Though it took some time for me to get into it, once I was in there was no turning back. It’s a novel comprised of pairings that don’t seem like they would make much sense initially but which are brought together in surprisingly beautiful, complementary ways. Compelling in the simple surface action of the story, The Golem and the Jinni proves even more engaging at deeper, philosophical levels.

The story begins with introducing—or in the case of the Golem, creating—the two central and titular beings of the narrative. The Golem’s creation and waking are quickly followed by the death of her master, leaving her untethered during the critical early days of her existence. She arrives in America with no one waiting for her who can help her navigate a city teeming with the hopes and wishes of thousands of people. A young tinsmith inadvertently releases the Jinni from a copper flask but the Jinni can’t remember the specifics of how he came to be trapped in a human form or who it was that put him in the flask. He too is wildly unprepared for life in New York City during the height of immigration. The Golem and the Jinni soon come to grips with how to survive in their new lives but both yearn for something more—to be able to be their true selves without fear though first they have to figure out what those true selves are.

The dynamics between the Golem and the Jinni as characters are beautifully nuanced in their contrasting natures. The Jinni is inherently a being that craves freedom—freedom of movement, freedom from social bonds and norms. Yet he emerges from the flask to discover himself enslaved and trapped in a human form. While he doesn’t have a recognizable master pulling his strings, he feels the constraint nonetheless. The tinsmith, Arbeely, tries to impress the importance of conforming to the expectations of the local community in which the Jinni must reside, but it grates on the Jinni’s patience. On the other side of the spectrum, is the Golem. She is meant to be tethered to a master, was built to protect and do his bidding. Yet within hours of her master waking her, he has died and she is completely free and completely at the mercy of the world around her. Because of her master’s specifications in her making, she is better able to cope than most golems would be in her situation, but without being found and recognized for what she is by a kind and sympathetic rabbi willing to take her in and educate her, she would not have lasted long. Both the Golem and the Jinni share the experiences of being Other, of struggling to find a place within their respective communities without giving themselves away while having that fundamental difference of perspective as well—a free-spirited Jinni limited by his form and a servile Golem with no one to answer to but herself.

Questions of fate, destiny, free will, and chance overlap with those related to guilt, responsibility, risk, and blame. How far back does the blame for what happens really lie? How do responsibility and guilt interact with one another? Are we trapped by the patterns of the past or can we escape through exercising free will? Early on, Rabbi Meyer—who takes the Golem under his wing—asserts that humans should be judged based on their actions rather than their thoughts, which the Golem is able to discern as part of her nature. This idea arises throughout the novel as intent, facades, and social niceties creep up, especially since the novel is set in New York City at a time with high immigrant populations and neighborhoods, where cultural and religious differences made the city a patchwork of peoples that further complicates the lives of the Golem and the Jinni.

While the novel stands solidly on its own, I’m rather excited by the prospect of a sequel tentatively scheduled for publication in 2018.


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