The Golem and the Jinni is Helene Wecker’s bestselling debut novel. Set in 1899 New York, the story follows the lives of a golem named Chava, a woman made from clay to be a wife and servant, and Ahmad, a jinni who had been trapped in a flask only to be released hundreds of years later.
It was this premise that first grabbed me and made me want to read the novel; a magical realist book that didn’t gravitate toward well-known supernatural beings, but characters that were drawn from traditional Jewish and Arab mythology.
The two beings struggle with their new found humanism, especially learning everyday customs and social expectations. The book becomes less of an exploration of the golem and the jinni and their supernatural histories and more of a study of what it means to be human, while exploring themes that are as relevant today as they were in 1899. In an interview with Heather Drucker found at the back of the book, Wecker herself says that the concerns of old that are addressed in The Golem and the Jinni are still the concerns of many in modern society:
They worried about multiculturalism and globalism, the tensions between science and religion, between tradition and assimilation. It became clear to me that we have always been finding and losing our faiths; we have always struggled to defend or flaunt propriety, to follow or ignore the dictates of our hearts.
Seeing the characters, especially the golem Chava, navigate conventions that we live with everyday is a major highlight of the novel, giving it a complexity that would otherwise make the entire book fall flat. Using characters that originated from ancient religions also helps the novel steer clear of most clichés.
The fault of the book lay in the execution of the story. While the plot steadily progresses like a rolling snowball (and eventually becomes so big that it’s difficult to carry), some plot points are predictable and others are just plain implausible. This caused me to withdraw from the story in places and lose my suspension of disbelief.
I was also disappointed to find some characters that I had grown attached to being glossed over at the end, which kept me thinking less about what was on the page and more about what could have been happening elsewhere in the story-world. I have to give Wecker credit for creating such interesting and well-rounded characters, especially Sophia and Michael, though I was always left wanting more than I ever received from them.
Wecker’s writing style is simplistic and easy to read, leaving little challenge or work on the reader’s part. This can be good or bad, depending on the mood and taste of the reader, though I found that by the end of the 450+ page novel I was craving something with more complexity and substance. There are moments of beauty and some wonderful lines, but they were too few and far between for my liking.
The Golem and the Jinni had the potential to be a truly great read, if only Wecker had focused less on plot and reaching the climax of the story, and more on the transformations of the characters and their adaptation to human life. A simplistic story executed well would have better suited the magical realism genre.
As it stands, The Golem and the Jinni is a pleasant and interesting read that’s perfect for a bit of light escapism if you’re not in the mood for too much of a challenge.