[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker’s debut novel, adds a layer of depth and mystery to the traditional immigrant’s tale with the addition of her title characters. In 1899 New York, a golem without a master and a jinni who was enslaved by a wizard struggle to survive and find meaning in their existences, and in doing so, bring changes to the humans around them.
The golem was created to be a wife to a lonely, self-centered furniture maker who leaves Prussia and go to New York. On the voyage, he dies after awakening the golem. In New York, the golem is taken in by Avram Meyer, a rabbi who knows a bit about golems. She raises a moral conundrum for Meyer; golems, primarily designed to be protective, can be destructive and the correct thing to do would be to destroy a masterless one, but he sees her as innocent and child-like, and can’t bring himself to do it. He decides to help her fit in to human society.
In another part of the city, a neighborhood called Little Syria, an industrious metal-smith named Boutros Arbeely begins to repair a copper oil flask, and releases a jinni who has been trapped for a thousand years. Even freed of the bottle, the jinni is not free; he wears an iron band on his wrist that he cannot remove. The lives of Rabbi Meyer, Boutros Arbeely and their families will be forever changed by these events.
After setting her two folkloric creatures loose in the teeming city, Wecker unfolds her story at a leisurely pace. The golem and the jinni do not even meet until page 172. During that time, the author introduces us to Little Syria. We meet Saleh, who was a doctor and a healer in his own country, who struggles with a peculiar kind of madness, and is now reduced to selling ice cream; Michael, a good-hearted intellectual and the rabbi’s nephew, who has lost his faith; we meet Maryam Faddoul, who runs a coffee house with her husband and is the bright spark, the caretaker, of the neighborhood. Wecker has moments of brilliant wit, as when she describes the baker’s wife:
Among her husband’s employees she worked as a matchmaker in reverse, listing their defects to any man who showed an interest.
The book is also filled with moments of excruciating loneliness. The golem does not sleep, so each night she sits in her room at the boarding house and takes apart her dress, then re-sews it.
She had devised this occupation soon after coming to the boardinghouse, when she’d spent an evening so dull that she’d resorted to counting things to pass the time. She’d counted the tassels on her lampshade (eighteen) and the number of boards in the floor (two hundred forty seven) and had opened her armoire in search of more things to count, when her gaze fell on the dress.
The jinni, meanwhile, who has been given the name Ahmad, roams the city at night, riding the Elevated train and exploring Central Park. He encounters a wealthy debutante, Sophia Winston. The jinni, a powerful magical creature, is prideful and full of desire. Because of these traits, and because of his experience with humans, he fits into the city better than the newly created golem. Ahmad has no memory of how he was enslaved, but Wecker gives the reader the story of his past, sprinkling it in with his adventures in this new city.
While Ahmad explores the city, the rabbi and the golem struggle with powerful philosophical questions. Can the golem have a soul, even though she was not created by God? The golem herself struggles with existential dilemmas, as in this conversation with the jinni:
“But your life affects others, and you don’t seem to realize it.” She looked down to her hands, tangled in her lap.” Perhaps it’s unfair to wish otherwise. We’re our natures, you and I.”
Wecker jettisons her measured pace about three-quarters of the way through the book when the man who created the golem arrives in New York as well. This man is a solid villain with a fascinating backstory, and at this point the author tries her hand at action and suspense. I think this creates some confusion about the nature of the book; suddenly it begins to look like a fantasy novel, which it is not. Once the villain is onstage and sets his nefarious scheme in motion, it seems like things are much too easy for him. Basically, every bit of information he needs is in the hands of one of two or three people and he finds them easily, and suddenly people are taking hostages, barging into houses and borrowing carriages right and left. It’s a departure from the flow and the tone of the earlier story.
The real suspense here is whether the golem and the jinni can find any kind of happiness in this new life. The ending is not bad and it didn’t spoil the book for me; and I found the villain to be a fascinating character. I only think the choice to go this way creates some confusion as to what kind of book this is.
I like — I really like — how Wecker treats her women characters. The decision to make a female golem was new. In trying to play against type, Wecker stumbles into another stereotype with the golem as a docile, earthy, receptive, obedient female. This could have been a disaster, but Wecker ultimately, through the actions of the rabbi, puts the golem’s destiny into her own earthen hands. Maryam Faddoul is the leader of her neighborhood, even if she leads over trays of coffee. The inevitable pregnant and unmarried woman character prevails and finds some measure of happiness. Even the debutante Sophie Winston manages to break free of the glittering snow-globe of her privileged life, and approach the world on her own terms.
Like thousands of others who came to the new world, both the golem and jinni have an idea of how their lives will be. What they find, on an alien shore, is something completely different. Like Saleh, like Maryam, like Rabbi Meyer, each one must adjust, must make changes. Success, safety, community, do not look exactly the way those things did back home. Like the beautiful embossed tin ceiling Ahmad makes in the metal-smith shop, The Golem and the Jinni works best as an exquisite mural of the immigrant experience.