The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Djinni 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?)