The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, historical fantasy in NYC

Borrowed from helenewecker.com

This novel is about beginnings and new beginnings. It’s about immigrant communities, and what the dream of America has meant to so many people for so long. Multiple POVs, with some minor romantic subplots that aren’t really the point of the story.

The principle characters are a golem, newly awakened to serve a master she outlasts, and a jinni, trapped in a vessel for a thousand years. Both have ended up in New York, and both must find their way. The golem takes refuge in a Jewish community, taken in by a kind rabbi who understands what she is. The jinni stays in a Syrian community, earning his keep with metalworking. Both are deeply unsatisfied with their limitations, though they handle it very differently.

The golem is steady, but she’s very young, and her nature is to help people. She also has a hidden potential for violence that she doesn’t understand, but can feel inside of her. She’s terrified of unleashing it. The jinni is tempestuous, and always looking for something to hold his interest. He values his freedom, but is trapped in one form and in a pretense of human life.

In addition to these characters, there are many secondary characters who get to share their perspective and their lives. All of this ties into the story, and contributes to the tone of the book. So many people, so many different experiences, all of them converging on one point.

This novel is about people. It’s about the best of our nature and the worst of our nature. About doing bad things with good intentions or good things with bad intentions. I find myself wanting to talk about the story in anecdotes, so why not?

Here are just a few of the stories, major or minor, that weave together to form the fabric of this book:

  • A man dedicating his life to providing newly arrived immigrants–who get off the ship, step onto new land, then realize they have no idea what to do next–with a temporary place to stay.
  • The hedonism of someone who gives no thought to how his actions affect others.
  • A community of people agreeing to keep buying a product even during a season when they don’t want it, to support the man who makes it.
  • The desperation of a woman with no real options, blackmailing people who haven’t done her any harm
  • The indignity and wounded pride of a newly arrived immigrant who discovers that helpful strangers had left him money in his pockets, without his knowledge.

Desperate, generous, envious, terrified, everything. All kinds of people. And those touches of immigrant mentality, of looking out for each other.

I loved this book. I knew from the first few pages that I would love it, which is always nice. The golem and the jinni both have natures that are different from humans and from each other. Disagreements abound, between different people, between people and our principle characters, or between the jinni and the golem. They all understand their world through the filter of what they are and what they already know.

Conflicts aren’t neatly resolved, and understandings can’t always be reached. Sometimes, characters say very intelligent things that I can appreciate and disagree with at the same time. This was just a fantastic read.

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