The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
January 16, 2014
When I started this blog in 2003, it never occurred to me that I might wind up with a sideline in recommending religion-related speculative fiction. But here I am, having written about Saladin Ahmed's delightful Throne of the Crescent Moon last month, and G. Willow Wilson's delightful Alif the Unseen some time before that, and now I've got another recommendation -- Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni.
This book interweaves two mythologies into one entrancing novel. This is the story of Chava, a golem (think: creature made of earth, brought to life via mystical kabbalistic incantations, á la Rabbi Loew of medieval Prague) and Ahmed, a jinni (think: fire-spirit as mentioned in the Qur'an, the sort once enslaved by Suleyman a.k.a. Solomon) who meet in New York at the turn of the 20th century.
I've known the golem stories for as long as I can remember. I have a tiny clay golem figurine which I bought from a street vendor in Prague (my mother's birthplace) on my first trip there in 1993, and when I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the mystical letter-combination practices of the Sefer Yetzirah and Abraham Abulafia, I spent some time dipping into golem stories just for fun. The jinni material was less known to me, but the book is so deftly-woven that my relatively shallow familiarity with that story didn't matter.
Wecker's depiction of 1899 New York is rich and detailed. Equally so are the depictions of Konin in the late 1800s, and the Bedouin encampment a millennium before. But I think what I like best about the book is the slow, cautious friendship which develops between the two supernatural beings. Both the golem and the jinni are lost in almost-20th-century New York, and as each of them struggles to process the peculiarities of this place and time, the reader experiences the unfamiliar landscape along with them. For both Chava and Ahmed, being exposed to ordinary human society would have disastrous repercussions.
Those similarities aside, they're about as different as two characters can be. One's from Jewish folklore and the other's from Arabic folklore. One's newly-made and the other is ancient as the sands. For that matter, one's (literally) an earth elemental and the other's quintessentially fire, with all of the personal characteristics which those terms imply: steadiness versus capriciousness, rootedness versus wanderlust, quiet contentment versus burning passion. Their relationship is by turns sweet and prickly, filled with misunderstandings -- but as they come to know each other, we get to listen in, and that's a real delight.
There's an excerpt on the author's website. Take a peek, see if this might be a good fit for you. I envy all of y'all who haven't yet read it, and will get to enjoy its twists and turns for the first time.