The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful
Helene Wecker’s historical fantasy novel, The Golem and the Jinni, was a pleasant surprise for me. It had been much-hyped, before and after publication, and my experience with “those” kinds of books has tended to be less than wonderful. I am thrilled to say, though, that The Golem and the Jinni, not only lived up to expectations, but exceeded them (mine, especially). The story is about two mythological creates whose paths are fated to cross. The first, Ahmad, is a gorgeous, fiery Jinni who has been bound to a wicked master for generations; the second, Chava, is a uniquely gifted Golem, created to serve a specific purpose but now lost without her master who died at sea shortly after she was awaken (born). The two creatures meet in New York city, thousands of miles from their middle eastern homelands, at the turn of the century (1899). Although they are quite different – differently skilled, with wildly different temperaments – they develop a strange friendship, the strength of which their own fate, and the fate of the world, might depend on.
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
It is rare to read a fantasy story about two inhuman characters who read as so very human. Each of these creatures is awoken in a time, place, and situation which calls for them to be essentially born anew. They must learn the ways of the world, the languages and customs of the new world, in order to survive and to protect those who they have grown to care for, if somewhat begrudgingly. The Jinni, a creature of fire and air, learns to hone his skills with metalwork and artistry, all the while longing for freedom from his bondage and for his homeland, the deserts of the Middle East. The Golem, more intelligent, inquisitive, and lifelike than any other golem before her, struggles to navigate such a populated place; living in New York is difficult for someone like her, because she can sense and feel all the thoughts and emotions of those around her. Interestingly enough, while they both learn much about humanity by living amongst humans, it is the friendship that develops between them, the bond that only two non-humans can share, which teaches them the greatest human lessons of all – faith, love, and sacrifice.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
Wecker certainly has a talent not just for storytelling, but for story-crafting. The story of Ahmad and his master, which is central to The Golem and the Jinni, is one which spans centuries of time, and numerous countries; yet, Wecker manages to weave the jinni’s sparse memories so fluidly into the main story that we hardly realize how much history has unfolded before us. The lives of the characters and their stories interconnect effortlessly, right up to the conclusion, which is stunning in conception and delivery. Her prose is simultaneously deep and delicate, romantic and bare. The marriage of style and story reminds me of the great gothic Romances, of Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley – Wecker has somehow recreated one of the most sentimental, exploratory literary movements in a contemporary novel that is set in the past. She provides just enough suspense, just enough romance, just enough magic, and just enough reality to make it all work seamlessly.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
What the great gothic Romances, like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde did was to tell the story of humanity through a supernatural lens. What can we learn about ourselves, about our desire for power, knowledge, control, by exploring the cause and effect relationship between who we are and what we create? Wecker revisits this question, she asks, again, what does it mean to be human, to be capable of creating great and terrible things, to be gods among men? Much of today’s literature, with the exception, perhaps, of those like DeLillo and Vonnegut, forgets to question this power, forgets to wonder about the cause-and-effect relationship between our scientific, technological advances and our moral centers. Wecker does this, in the original form. She reminds us to think about how far we go, to question the value of our creations, to wonder about our humanity, and to reevaluate ourselves and our impact on the world – our dasein, as Heidegger would put it. Above everything, she reminds us that the world belongs to all of us and that the best we can do with our lives is to love and to learn. The Golem and the Jinni was one of my favorite reads of 2013.
Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Historical Fiction, Witchcraft, Romance.
“A man might desire something for a moment, while a larger part of him rejects it. You’ll need to learn to judge people by their actions, not their thoughts.”
“Sometimes men want what they don’t have because they don’t have it. Even if everyone offered to share, they would only want the share that wasn’t theirs.”
“I look at what we call faith, and all I see is superstition and subjugation. All religions . . . create false divisions, and enslave us to fantasies, when we need to focus on the here and now.”
Wonderful review! I’ve been interested in reading this, but I’ve been worried that it would turn out to be just another over-hyped fantasy work. Your review tells me I will most likely enjoy this very much. I love the quotes you posted, as well. Thank you!
Started reading and was engulfed in the story within the first 5 pages. Some how I picked up a copy with big print, making it much easier to read. (Must be getting older)
I’ve been skeptical of this one as well. So much hype rarely leads to go things. I’ll take your word for it, though, and stick it on my to-read list! Glad to hear you enjoyed it!
Going to get this based on your recommendation.
Glad you liked the book, and great review. I read it over the summer, and it is one of the best books I read last year.
I just loved this book and since I read it as an ARC the hype didn’t get a chance to put me off.
I love your review. I read the book this past year and it was in my top icks of the year. I wish I had the ability to write as eloquently as you.
I am really glad that this one turned out to be a great read for you! This one has been on my radar but I have been a bit wary about it. But after reading your review I have a bit more confidence in its greatness 😉
I really enjoyed this book, too. I liked the “what makes us human?” aspect. I didn’t expect this book to make me think so much, and I’m so glad it did.
I agree almost entirely. Where we disagree is that you say not a lot of books explore the relationship between morality and technology. Clearly, you and I are reading very different books. It’s that theme that has me returning, again and again, to speculative fiction.
I can’t remember; have you read Feed by Mira Grant? Approaches the question from a very different angle.
Yes, I’m sure you’re right that there are plenty of authors/books out there exploring these questions; I suppose what I meant was, books of this particular caliber. Meaning, sci-fi/fantasy masquerading as high literature, I suppose. When I think of the great Romantic science writers, I just think of great literature, period. There may be plenty of that going on in speculative fiction (I don’t read that much of it, admittedly), but people like DeLillo, Vonnegut, Pynchon, etc., seem to incorporate these scientific/fantasy elements so naturally into literature that it almost seems an afterthought, even though it’s the whole point. That’s what I feel Wecker does with the fantasy elements in this one.
This is why I so dislike the devaluing of genre works, because books that use speculative trappings to explore the big questions are so often overlooked. There are a lot of SF authors who write fluff or rely on an interesting premise to carry the story, but many also write well. The irony is that, once someone is recognized as quality, they’re said to have transcended the genre.
But that’s a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say that you’re not the first person to say you don’t read SF, but you like what defines it.
Oh, I read it – just not very often. And I agree completely about the devaluing of genre works – I live in academia and my doctoral work is on a “sideline” author in a “nontraditional” genre, so I have this fight constantly. Can’t wait to have to defend my dissertation. 🙂
Gotcha. Academia is definitely the worst place to talk to people about genre works.
Have you read Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds? It may provide some ammo for your defense. She’s widely accepted as a literary writer, and gets pretty meta with her commentary on speculative fiction.
No, I haven’t – I actually have Oryx and Crake sitting in my “read soon” pile, though. I’ll add this one to my dissertation prep wishlist. I’m working in the post-postmodern dystopia realm, but specifically looking at how the gay male perspective has shifted post-AIDS crisis (now that the “Death Drive” has become essentially moot). I’m trying to modernize some big forces – Lacan and the like- so the more fuel I have, the better.
Sadly, her work is staggeringly heteronormative. But she does discuss dystopia in depth, so hopefully you’ll find something useful in that section.
I had the same reservations as you about this book, but now I might give it a try! Thanks.
This was piqued my interest initially but I thought it probably wouldn’t be one I would like because of the fantasy element. But so many people like it so much, I really do need to give it a shot.