Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Magical Realism / Historical Fantasy / 19th Century / New York City / Immigrants / Supernatural Creatures / Judaism /
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (4/23/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked to loved.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Two mythological creatures arrive in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century, immigrants plunged into communities alien, and facing threats greater than they know.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: I do -- I think it captures the flavor of the book and the characters in a deliciously moody (and pretty!) way.

I'm reminded of...: Stephanie Dray, Neil Gaiman

First line: The Golem's life began in the hold of a steamship.

Did... I love browsing the author's website?: YES. She has sections on New York in 1899, Little Syria, the Lower East Side, as well as a helpful character list.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like magical realism meets historical fiction, New York City in novels, or deeply engrossing chunksters.

Why did I get this book?: Historical fiction meets supernatural mythology? Y.U.M.

Review: I was captivated by this book from the first line and my time with this book was nearly obsessive. Every free second I needed to read; and now that I'm done, I'm pretty sure I won't be able to do this book justice. (The very short review: I loved this imaginative, thoughtful book.)

Set in New York City, 1899, the novel follows two very unusual immigrants: a female golem, created to be a bride/sex slave to a man who dies on their journey to the US and a jinni (genie), released from a flask accidentally by a timsmith.

The golem is found by a rabbi who guesses her true identity, and they live in uncomfortable closeness. The golem, built to serve but living without a master, finds herself tugged at by every wish, desire, and yearning around her. The rabbi, unable to bring himself to destroy her, instead tries to introduce her into the wider Jewish world in the Lower East Side. Unable to sleep and unable to rest, the golem finds employment in a bakery but still attracts attention, despite her best attempts to obey the rabbi's suggestions.

The jinni, on the other hand, a powerful creature chained into human form by iron, chafes and bucks at his mortal shell. Almost a thousand years have passed since he was last free, and while he has a myriad of memories, he has no memory of his entrapment and what might have happened while trapped. Hidden in 'Little Syria' -- a neighborhood of Christian and Muslim Syrians in lower Manhattan -- the jinni is styled as the tinsmith's new assistant and immediately attracts nosy interest from his neighbors. In an impetuous move, motivated by curiosity and a smidgen of lust, the jinni meets a society woman who immediately captures his interest and attention with tragic results.

All this happens in the first hundred pages, and the remaining three hundred plus pages unfolds these two threads.  But within these stories are a myriad other stories, like a fairy tale or Scheherazade's, overlapping and meeting, occasionally tangling: the hermit who made the golem, the wizard who entrapped the jinni, the society woman, an itinerant ice cream seller with a complicated and strange affliction.

The jacket blurb says this is in the vein of A Discovery of Witches, which originally put me off since I didn't like ADOW, but I found this a richer, more nuanced novel.

Depending on the kind of reader you are, this can be simply a fantastical mix of myth and history or a literary exploration of faith, self directed identity, free will, the stuff that makes us human. Through the golem and jinni, we see firsthand the tumultuous, explosive, earthy world of early 20th century New York City; as they struggle with the whys of their existence, we puzzle through the bigger philosophical questions about life and choice. But at no point is this book pedantic or political; Wecker's characters wrestle with the same issues so many of us do and have, in the end, to answer to themselves, those they love, and the values they chose to hold.

Those who liked Neil Gaiman's American Gods might enjoy this one; those who like unusual historical novels will certainly dig this book. While it is a supernatural story or a historical fantasy, the 'magic' is tempered and controlled, and I think anyone who allergic to paranormal stories should give this one a try. (You can read an excerpt here, if it that helps!) I will say this one will end up on my holiday gift list for many folks -- it's a book that made me feel joyous as a reader, relishing the pleasure of being lost in a story so real I had to remind myself where I was every time I lifted my nose from the page.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Golem and the Jinni to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 5/17.


  1. This one really does sound fantastic. I skipped out on requesting in from TLC because I was overbooked at the time but I really should try and fit this one in soon. Lovely review!
    Bonnie @ Sweet Tidbits

    1. I feel you on the overbooked thing -- I miss out on so many good books I just can't squeeze in -- but so v glad I got to this one. Delish!

  2. I've been wanting to read this one for months now. it's been sitting on my shelf, taunting me. also, great cover!

  3. So excited for this one!! Glad to hear that you liked it. I'm thrilled to hear it compared to Gaiman.

    1. It doesn't have Gaiman's droll humor to it, but the lovely marriage of magic and mundane is quite striking.

  4. Gah. I am still on the fence. I think this is something I need to try, but I don't know. Something's holding me back. I suppose I will keep an eye out for more reviews. *is indecisive*

    1. What are you on the fence about? Is it the paranormal thing? Tell me so I can talk you off the fence -- this is a great one!

  5. It sounds packed with ideas, but in a way that works. I don't know all that much about ADOW (read reviews but never read the book so forgot) but I like that you made the comparison here, it gives even more of an idea as to what it's like, and I know enough about it for that.

  6. I am so anxious to read this book. I love historical fiction and I really, really love magical realism so on that alone, this book sounds like a perfect match for me. I also really like books set in NYC!

  7. Ohhoho! This book ... wow ... I don't even know what to say ... it is so different and FASCINATING! I can't wait to read it myself.

    Thanks for being on the tour! I'm featuring your wonderful review on TLC's Facebook page today.

  8. Ohh wow, I seriously need to read this.

  9. Great review, I liked this book as well (http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=8188), never thought about American Gods but I can see it.

  10. Wow - I would love to read this book. I love that it made you feel joyous! It sounds like a really interesting combination of things.