Otto Rotfeld is a lonely man who wants a wife. Knowing his chances are nearly impossible with the women of his Polish village, he turns to an outsider to fulfill his request. A man who practices dark magic agrees to make him a wife of clay, a golem. The request is difficult to fill, but the strange old man manages the creation, and shortly after, the golem and her master board a ship for America. Rotfeld wakes the golem on the ship but dies soon after, leaving her to fend for herself in a world she doesn’t understand with no one to watch over her. After arriving at Ellis Island, the golem runs, inundated by the wants and needs of those crowded around her. Rabbi Meyer, a widower making his way in New York, spies the golem. Knowing what she is and fearing for not only the golem but those around her, he takes her in and names her Chava.
"Helene Wecker does a fine job of pulling strings in this story. What might feel like several story lines is really one very long tale that twists and turns but never tangles. It’s an incredible web that draws people together in ways never imagined."
Maryam Faddoul is the heart of her Syrian neighborhood. One day, she takes an old copper flask, a family heirloom, to the local metal smith, Arbeely, to be repaired. While fixing the flask, Arbeely unknowingly releases a jinni. The jinni, now named Ahmad, has trouble living by the strict rules that govern human form. Chained by the spell that captured him hundreds of years ago, he can no longer take his true jinni form. He struggles to accept what little he can experience of life as a human. While roaming the dark streets of New York City, he attempts to find a bit of freedom. It’s on one of these explorations that he meets Chava and becomes fascinated by her and what she is.
Mythical creatures struggling to fit into the daily life of 1890s New York City, Chava and Ahmad want to stay hidden but chafe at pretending to be human. Taking to the night, the two explore the city, grow close, and begin accepting that life will always be this way for them. When they are involved in a tragic event, their lives, and the lives of those around them, change forever. Choices are made, lives move forward, and the golem and jinni once more find ways to survive.
How can you not love a story about mythical creatures set in 1890s New York City? It’s such a rich narrative, and I enjoyed how Chava and Ahmad fought to fit in. The Syrian and Jewish neighborhoods that take them in are full of incredible characters and their lives become mirror images of the immigrants around them.
Chava is particularly interesting in the way she fights not to fulfill every want and wish by which she is mentally bombarded. Built to obey a master, but living without one, she learns to control the impulse to help everyone and fix everything. It’s painful and troubling, but she endures. Ahmad, on the other hand, steeps himself in sorrow and self-pity, longing for a former life far out of reach. It’s Chava who teaches him that there’s more to being human than what he believes. It’s the limitations of these mythical creatures that make them human.
Helene Wecker does a fine job of pulling strings in this story. What might feel like several story lines is really one very long tale that twists and turns but never tangles. It’s an incredible web that draws people together in ways never imagined. There’s nothing better than a story like that. This may be a story of mythical creatures, but in the end, it’s a story of people adjusting to new lives and learning how to fit in. The simplicity of that is what makes THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI wonderful.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on April 26, 2013