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.
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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.