In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.
Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.
This novel has been burning a hole through my “Want to Read” shelf for years. With a gorgeous cover, unusually high reviews (4.11 stars on Goodreads and 4.5 on Amazon), and a subject matter that is right up my alley, all signs pointed to Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni being my new favorite novel. All I needed was the right time to read it, and having recently relocated to New York City, it finally felt like the perfect moment. Unfortunately this novel let me down hard.
Ironically, given the subject matter, my main complaint with The Golem and the Jinni is that it lacks a soul. Characters, relationships, and settings are all described in a dull and dispassionate way that I found really disappointing. The incredible amount of descriptive potential present in turn of the century Manhattan is criminally underutilized, as is the potential for any sense of magical wonder. Chava seems to be connected to the earth and all that grows in it, yet we get two stilted references to this ability. Twice the grass helps her run a bit faster in a park. That’s literally it.
Wecker is also continually guilty of telling instead of showing, leaving the characters empty, and me completely disengaged. I don’t know how one manages to make the love story of mythical beings made of fire and and clay into an accounting of monotonous chores and responsibilities, but The Golem and the Jinni is exactly that. Both characters are two dimensional representations of their elements. Chava is rigid and flat, while Ahmad is eye rolling-ly flighty and temperamental. I could not relate to or invest in either character, and the supporting characters manage to be even less interesting. The villain is your classic “evil because he is evil” bad guy without any depth to speak of, while I could barely tell the various other friends and associates apart. I was not invested in a single character in this novel.
I also found the plot to be meandering, formulaic, and highly predictable. A solid half of this novel could have been edited out, with interminable and repetitive passages describing Chava’s baking career and Ahmad’s frustration with his metalworking. If neither character seems to care much for anything they are doing, why should I? It takes forever for anything of interest to transpire, yet when it finally does, it feels canned. The unique concepts and potential fall by the wayside, replaced instead with a cliched (and ultimately unsatisfying) romance plotline. The supernatural elements of the novel are resolved uniformly in a mess of deus ex machina. None of the characters plans come to fruition, it is simply through sheer and extremely improbable luck that anything ends the way that it does.
I cannot understand the acclaim that this novel has received, I feel like I must have missed something crucial. I definitely didn’t enjoy it, though it wasn’t the worst novel I’ve read.