Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Golem and the Jinni Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Helene Wecker
Publisher: Harper Collins
Genre: Literary Fantasy
Series: Standalone
Pages: 486

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We Need To Focus On The Here And Now 

Helene Wecker’s debut novel tells the tale of a Jinni and a Golem that live in New York City at the turn of the 20th century.  Wecker’s story blends a number of genres, creating a literary melting pot that seems to go hand in hand with the real world cultural melting pot of immigrant filled New York. Some of these genres are used conventionally – fantasy and historical fiction – others are used unconventionally – romance and literary.

Wecker has a distinct writing style, and her prose is the strongest part of the book.  On the other hand the plot starts to feel forced, and the book misses opportunities to deliver some gut rendering emotional scenes. Instead it leaves readers wondering why they didn’t feel a cathartic release after the build up of so much emotional tension. The Golem and the Jinni proves Helene Wecker is a skilled writer, but her storytelling needs some improvement.

Set in 1899, a recently awoken golem named Chava arrives by boat to New York City, but not before her master has died on the voyage over.  Naive and clueless, the Golem is eventually taken up by an elderly Rabbi who teaches her about his faith and about the world she’s just entered.

A jinni who goes by the name Ahmad is released from a flask that has held him for over a millennium by a tinsmith.  He has to learn how to come to terms with the technological advancements and societal developments that occurred during his confinement.

As these two magical beings get acclimated into a world that would be horrified at their true natures, they eventually find each other and become friends.  However, the pasts of both the Golem and the Jinni hide dark figures that may come back to haunt them.

The Golem is the strongest character in this book … literally.  Being awoken on a ship, she has a powerful, physically dominating body, but the naivete of a newborn child … a dangerous combination under the wrong circumstances.  Fortunately, her maker/designer created her to be compassionate, and watching her learn about the world through the tutelage of the Rabbi are some of the most beautifully written scenes in the whole story.  Her quote, unquote, Jewish heritage makes her even more unique.

The Jinni is well developed, but I never felt as attached to this character as when compared to the Golem.  His back story provokes a lot of questions, some of which are good for the plot, others not so good. The Jinni who is from the desert, and now living in Little Syria, has a history that’s rooted with the Bedouin, but he doesn’t subscribe to the Muslim faith.

What disappointed me the most about this story was how little the author used the setting to drive conflict in her story.  A Jewish Golem, and an atheist Jinni (with an Islamic background) – both of whom are immigrants, are living in New York at the turn of the 20th century.  Essentially these characters live in a place that would hate everything about them – they’re monsters, they’re not Christian, and they’re not born in the U.S.A. … yet the author never allows any of these issues to become anything more than and underlying threat.

With a setting like this, it feels like a huge missed opportunity by Wecker when she uses the Golem’s ignorance of manners and the Jinni’s terrible lack of impulse control to drive almost all her conflicts. The setting also provides a number of opportunities to explore some social issues like immigration and religion, but the author rarely mentions immigration and only touches surface level ideas about religion.

I was really into this book when I first picked it up, but by the middle it was meandering, and by the end the plot began to feel like it was being forced to comeback in on itself.  The relationship between the Jinni and the Golem can be unconventional, which is something I liked, but the progression of events that concludes this novel never feels unnatural.  Long awaited moments of resolution don’t have the emotional kick they need. Despite being written really well, the Golem and the Jinni only tells an average story.

Score: 7.3

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