Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

You know those movies that all your friends tell you are simply the funniest/scariest/best thing they’ve ever seen, so you just have to see it for your self?  You build up your perception of the movie until it’s of Oscar-worthy proportions, but then you see it and, while it’s good, it falls a little flat?  That’s how I would describe my experience with my latest read, The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker.  That is not to say I didn’t enjoy this work – I absolutely did! – just that I was expecting something a little different.

The Golem and the Jinni is the story of two mystical creatures who, by happenchance, find themselves in turn of the century (nineteenth to twentieth, that is) New York.  The Golem had been built to be a wife for a Polish immigrant who died on the journey from Europe, while the Jinni is unexpectedly released from his prison (a copper oil jar) by a tinsmith.  The book tells the story of their efforts to fit into the immigrant societies they find themselves in, of their meeting and friendship, and finally of their efforts to find a permanent way to live with their true natures.

And that’s the key to this work – it’s all about the intrinsic nature of people (okay, and mystical creatures).  Are you meant to be subservient to someone, or create your own path?  Can you be happy in what you build for yourself, or will you live is a suspended state?  And at the centre of all this is the basic question I think we all ask ourselves from time to time - are you good at heart, or evil? 

Wecker, in some ways, blew me away with this book; keep in mind that this is her first novel.  First of all, her method of describing the history and nature of her characters is incredibly enjoyable; I think some of the best written and most interesting passages are the biographical ones where she gives us the history of her characters.  Secondly, the writing style is fast-paced and enjoyable; at no point does it lag.  Finally, Wecker’s ability to bring all the disparate pieces of her story (that is to say, the characters themselves) together into a well-balanced and well-crafted plot is amazing; like the Jinni’s love of fine filigree work, Wecker’s own story is held together by small strands that run throughout each character’s tale – those strands are delicate and beautifully worked, and contribute to the whole in such a way that they add to the overall pleasure of the read.

On a practical front, it’s interesting to read about mystical characters that aren’t angst-y sparkly teenagers.  A golem is a monster from Jewish mythology that is built of clay and intended to be bound to a master to do their bidding; a jinni is a creature much like our modern impression of a genie (but with more nuances).  While the shelves of the local book stores are stuffed with vampires, wolf men, and zombies, Wecker found a way to buy into the supernatural craze in a wholly unique way, for while I think she deserves some serious kudos.

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  It’s a joy to read and a well-written piece of literature which, I’m sure, is going to be on a lot of lists for this year.  However, don’t let yourself be sold by the hype like I did, or else it might not live up to your expectations.  Wecker’s abilities, however, are great, and I’ll be looking for more of her work in the future; I think she’s an author I’m going to be enjoying for years to come.  


  1. Literal LOL moment at the "sparkly teenager" comment. I recently read this book too and also found it a little different than what I was expecting. Great read, interesting time period, and unique mythical creatures. Awesome book from a debut author!

  2. I have this one waiting to be read, but have so far avoided doing so because of the all the hype it's been receiving (I don't generally get along with overly hyped books, probably because my expectations for them are always incredibly high). That said, given all the positive reviews for it I'm not sure how long I'll be able to put it off.