The Golem and the Djinni

I felt like I hadn’t read a very good fantasy book in a long time,  one that presented something that seemed wholly new while at the same time reminding me of others cast in the same mould. At least, that’s what I felt until I picked up Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni.

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What a gorgeous cover

Set in 1899, in a New York which is just recognizable enough to keep its readers comfortable, Wecker’s debut novel explores the relationship between two outsiders in this city of immigrants: a Golem and a Djinni. Chava, the golem, was created to be the wife of her master, Otto Rotfeld, a Polish Jew who plans to emigrate with his newly created wife to the New World.  Fortunately for us, Rotfeld disregards the golem-maker’s advice and wakes his ‘wife’ while still on board the ship. Unfortunately for him, he dies soon afterward, leaving her to fend for herself in America.

More resourceful than your average clay-woman, Chava not only finds a trustworthy mentor and guide, but also stumbles across a being who, like her, is trying to pass off as an average human while being nothing of the kind: a djinni from the Syrian desert.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship, but things go haywire when Yehudah Schaalman, the golem’s creator, shows up in New York, bent on a quest to find the secret to eternal life.

The Golem and the Djinni was a really, really good read. Not only did Wecker conjure up a vivid turn-of-the-century Manhattan, but I loved how she took on the magical and mystical aspects of cultures that have, by and large, been ignored by the mainstream Western fantasy canon. The only other book I’ve read that delved into Jewish lore, for instance, was Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, where there was a golem figure, albeit for a blink-and-you-miss-it duration. Of course, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series spends a lot of time in varied magical cultures, but in the adult canon, there seem to be fewer instances of diversity. Things are changing, yes, but slowly.

What I really loved about the book, though, was Ahmad, the djinni. I really enjoyed following him on his jaunts through nocturnal New York, discovering the world five hundred and more years after being ensconced away in a lamp. Most of all, I loved how, through him, Wecker brought to life ‘Little Syria’, the Arab neighbourhood of the city, and all its residents: Maryam Faddoul, Boutros Arbeely, Mahmoud Saleh.

I think, honestly, that Ahmad shone more brightly than Chava did. Perhaps this is to be expected, considering that he is a being of fire while she one of clay, and that what defines him is passion and spontaneity versus her more ‘modest’ and calm demeanour, but I think Wecker also fell more deeply in love with this character than the other. For one thing, Ahmad has (what seems to me) a far more interesting and layered ‘back story’ than Chava. For another, I think he progresses and achieves more as a character in the course of the book, but we can always debate that after you read it.

Or maybe I just have a soft spot for ‘passionate’ handsome, cursed men. Rule out nothing.

After finishing this book, I’m diving back into Stroud’s series, if only to reacquaint myself with the djinn. I also intend, at some point, to pick up Saladin Ahmad’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, if only because I need to step out of my comfort zone of elves and goblins and try something a little closer to home. And what do you know, maybe by then I, or one of my esteemed peers, would have produced some new, truly epic ‘Indian’ fantasy.

And I don’t mean myth fic, no siree.

What are you waiting for? Go get a copy of Wecker’s book now. I promise you, you won’t regret it!

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