Helene Wecker’s best-selling debut novel The Golem and the Jinni ($15.99) is an immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology. It tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899: the first, a woman who is a golem, created out of clay to be the wife of a man who then dies on the journey to New York; the second, a man who is a Jinni, a being of fire, who is trapped by a Bedouin wizard in a copper flask and released accidentally by a Syrian tinsmith in Lower Manhattan.
The stunning narrative traces their respective journeys as they explore the strange human city. Chava, as a kindly old rabbi names her, is beset by human desires and wishes, which she constantly feels tugging at her; Ahmad, christened by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, is aggravated by human dullness. But they both work to make at least a temporary place for themselves in this new world, and develop tentative relationships with the people in their neighborhoods.
In an exciting and fast-paced story of adventure and adversity, the Golem and the Jinni finally meet. It is not exactly a romance, and at first they are hostile and suspicious, but they eventually form a strong bond, since only they can recognize each other for what they truly are. Surrounding them, and crucial to their story, is a colorful cast of supporting characters: the café owner Maryam Faddoul; the solitary ice cream maker Saleh; Rabbi Meyer’s beleaguered nephew Michael; the young Fifth Avenue socialite Sophia Winston; and the mysterious Yehudah Schaalman, with his spells and esoteric wisdom.
A marvelous and compulsively readable work of fiction, The Golem and the Jinni is a fresh combination of vivid historical novel and magical fable. With threads from Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, it belongs in a tradition of contemporary writing that draw on folk materials, such as Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.
Helene Wecker is Jewish, and her husband’s family is Syrian, giving her a unique perspective on these two culture’s mystical traditions and the immigrant experiences of both groups. Her fiction has appeared in the online magazine Joyland, and she has read from her stories at the KGB Bar in Manhattan and the Barbershop Reading Series in San Francisco. She received a B.A. from Carleton College in Minnesota and an M.F.A. from Columbia University in New York. A Chicago-area native who’s made her home in Minneapolis, Seattle, and New York, she now lives near San Francisco, CA with her husband and daughter.
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic 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.