An immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, Helene Wecker’s sparkling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899. The woman is a golem created out of clay in Poland by an aged dabbler in the dark Kabbalistic arts to be the wife of a man who then dies at sea, leaving her unmoored and adrift as the ship comes into New York harbor; the man is a jinni, a being of fire, who is trapped by a Bedouin wizard in a copper flask and released accidentally by a Syrian tinsmith in lower Manhattan.
The narrative traces their respective journeys, as they explore the strange human city. Chava, as a kindly old rabbi names her, is beset by human desires and wishes, which she can feel tugging at her; Ahmad, baptized by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, is aggravated by human dullness. But they both work to make at least a temporary place for themselves in this new world, and develop tentative relationships with the people in their neighborhoods.
In an exciting and fast-paced narrative of adventure and adversity, the golem and the jinni finally meet: it is not exactly a romance, and at first they are hostile and suspicious, but they end up forming a strong bond, since only they can recognize each other for what they truly are. Surrounding them, and crucial to their story, is a colorful cast of supporting characters: the café owner Maryam Faddoul; the solitary Ice Cream Saleh; Rabbi Meyer’s beleaguered nephew Michael whose Sheltering House receives newly arrived Jewish immigrants; the young Fifth Avenue socialite Sophia Winston; and the mysterious Joseph Schall, aka Yehuda Schaalman, with his spells and esoteric wisdom.
A marvelous and compulsively readable work of fiction, THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI is a fresh combination of vivid historical novel and magical fable. With threads from Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, it belongs in a tradition of contemporary Jewish writing that draws on folk and pop cultural materials, like Michael Chabon’s THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY, different though that book is.