Meet Chava. She’s a golem, a woman made of clay, created by a Rabbi in Poland and brought to life on a ship sailing to America. When her master dies during the voyage, the Golem, only a few days old, finds herself alone in a strange and unfamiliar land.
Ahmad is a djinni, a magical being made of flame, born in the Syrian desert in the seventh century and trapped inside a copper flask by a wizard. Now, many centuries later, the Djinni is released from the flask by a New York tinsmith, but discovers that he is bound to human form by an iron band around his wrist.
As the Golem and the Djinni try to adapt to their new surroundings and struggle to find a place for themselves in New York society, the two are eventually drawn together and their separate storylines begin to merge together in some unexpected ways.
The Golem and the Djinni have many things in common, the most obvious being that they are two non-human creatures trying to survive in the human world. They share a vulnerability and a childlike wonder at the people and things around them, which is what makes them both such endearing characters. But coming from such different cultures, they soon discover that they also have very different natures. Chava, as a golem, is designed to serve a master and satisfy the desires of others, while Ahmad has been imprisoned against his wishes and is desperate to regain his independence. The question of free will is something that comes up in their conversations often. Are the Golem and the Djinni responsible for their own actions or do their natures make them behave in a certain way? How much free will does either of them actually have? And what are the things that make a person human?
I found the relationship between the Golem and the Djinni very moving to read about and I think the reason for that was because it was not written as a typical ‘love at first sight’ romance. At first their relationship is based on curiosity and a longing to be able to discuss things with another outsider. A friendship gradually starts to form but it’s not until they find themselves threatened by a mutual enemy that the Golem and the Djinni realise how much they care about each other. I really liked the fact that the author took her time to introduce us to the characters and allowed their story to develop slowly so that the pace never felt too rushed.
Another thing I loved was the choice of setting – New York in 1899. As the Golem and the Djinni are mythical creatures they could probably have been placed into any setting and their story would still have been interesting, but choosing this specific time and place was particularly fascinating because of the insights we are given into the various immigrant communities of turn of the century New York. Through the Golem we get to know some of the city’s Jewish population and through the Djinni we meet the inhabitants of ‘Little Syria’, as well as learning about the Djinni’s previous life among the Bedouin desert tribes. There are lots of great characters in each of these communities: the old Rabbi who befriends Chava and the tinsmith who befriends Ahmad, the ice cream seller who suffers from a strange affliction that prevents him from looking people in the eye, and the beautiful young girl who receives some late night visits from the Djinni.
As a first novel, The Golem and the Djinni was a very ambitious one but everything worked perfectly. There were so many things about this book that impressed me – the beautiful writing, the clever plot, the blending of fantasy with historical fiction, and most of all, the wonderful characterisation of both Chava and Ahmad. In four months’ time when I make my list of favourite books of the year The Golem and the Djinni is one title that I’m sure will be on that list!
(Now, can anyone tell me why the spelling Djinni is used in the UK edition and Jinni in the American one?)
15 thoughts on “The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker”
I have been on the edge about buying this book. The plot seems ambitions but I was afraid that it wouldn’t work out. Thanks for the review.
I wasn’t sure about it at first either but I’m so glad I decided to read it! With so many different elements to the story it could have been a disaster, but the author made it all work wonderfully.
I’ve been fascinated by golems since first coming across them in Terry Pratchett’s books, and wanting to know more about them. The story is not at all what I expected from the title. I love the setting – that’s enough to make me want to read the book!
I didn’t know anything about golems before reading this book, though I knew a little bit about djinnis (genies)! The story wasn’t really what I had expected either and I was pleasantly surprised by it.
This will be one of my books of the year too. The realisation of time and place, the ideas and the emotions were just wonderful.
I remember reading your review of it a few weeks ago and am so glad I loved it as much as you did!
This is so not my kind of book, but I am pretty intrigued to see how the author pulls all of the elements together in what is generally seen as a hugely successful way. I think I will put it on my ‘maybe someday list’!
I didn’t think it was my kind of book, but luckily I was wrong!
I’ve got this one in my TBR pile. I really should get around to it, especially having read your wonderful review 🙂
I hope you enjoy it!
I wasn’t too interested in this until I read Audra’s review. Now with what you’ve said about discussions of free will, the exploration of the history, I am all the more so. And particularly as you’ve said it’s likely to be on your year list.
This book raises a lot of interesting questions and topics and really leaves you with a lot to think about. I loved it and would highly recommend it!
I wondered about that spelling difference too! I’ve seen “djinn” before in many books, but I suppose the American tendency is toward simplification so in that edition “jinn” is preferred. I wonder what the author’s preference would be. By whatever name, it’s a wonderful book. I love the unusual interweaving of fantasy and history.
I’m glad you agree that this is a wonderful book, Lory! I loved the combination of fantasy and history too.