The Golem and the Jinni

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark, Kabbalastic 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 neighbours 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.

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

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I read The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker for the reading challenge (I am so behind on reviews. You have no idea.) at the suggestion of Glaiza @ Paper Wanderer. I am so glad I took the recommendation, because I LOVED it.

This book took me utterly by surprise. I went in expecting a supernatural romance and instead I got this stunning novel of ideas wrapped in gorgeous prose and a romance that engaged me more than any I have read in a long time.

It’s a novel consumed by the question of free will: do we have it? Should we have it? What does it mean to have it? The Golem, having been made to serve others, something she would have done for the entirety of her existence were it not for the sudden death of her master –  who she was magically bound to obey without question –  is suddenly thrown into an unknown world of independence. She has free will now, something she was never supposed to have, and with it she has to build herself from the ground up. She has to reverse engineer values, beliefs and desires while trying to pass as human to the people around her. She knows she has the potential to endanger and hurt people, and so she builds her entire life around avoiding that possibility. She is the foil to the villain of the novel, who was told as a young man training for the priesthood that he was destined for hell, and so lived a life worthy of that ending, determined there was no other option.

Wecker also uses her novel as a vehicle to have a really interesting conversation about faith. The characters are a mix when it comes to faith – one is a Rabbi, and utterly sure of his beliefs, others are atheists and still others are a little mix of the two. Either they don’t believe, and they kind of wish that they did, or they do believe but are plagued with doubt.

“What do you think?” he pressed. “Do you believe in their God?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “The Rabbi did. And he was the wisest person I’ve ever met. So yes, maybe I do.”
“A man tells you to believe, and you believe?”
“It depends on the man. Besides, you believe the stories that you were told. Have you ever met a jinni who could grant wishes?”
“No, but that ability has all but disappeared.”
“So, it’s just stories now. And perhaps the humans did create their God. But does that make him less real? Take this arch. They created it. Now it exists.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t grant wishes. It doesn’t do anything.”
“True,” she said. “But I look at it, and I feel a certain way. Maybe that’s its purpose.”

It’s so hard to have an interesting conversation about faith. Emotions run too high, and each side feels like the other’s belief system is a threat to their own, rather than simply a different one (I will hold my hand up and say I am SO guilty of this). What I really liked about the back and forth about faith – in God or in no God – and doubt was the lack of a good/bad dichotomy. The Rabbi helped the Golem because he believed God sent her to him, while his nephew, a staunch atheist, cared for the homeless through the shelter he ran because walking the streets of New York he encountered a problem he thought he could help solve. Like the Golem said, maybe the point isn’t so much the faith itself – something people who believe would very much disagree with me about, I know, and I’m not trying to offend anyone – but how to makes you feel. And, so long as that’s love – and sadly it so often isn’t for both people who believe in God and people who don’t – then you’re basically on the right track.

In The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker has created a riveting story and a vital conversation about faith and difference that feels particularly vital in this time of conflict and wilful misunderstanding.

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