Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni 
by Helene Wecker
Published:  Harper Perennial 
Format: Paperback
Copyright: 2013
Pages: 484
Genre: Fiction
Source: own book

From the cover "Chava is a Golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. Ahmad is a jinni, a being a fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.

Struggling to make their way in 1899 New York, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their immigrant neighbors while masking their true selves. Meeting by chance, they become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until ..."

Okay, actually I cut off the description from the cover because frankly it gives away too much. I am glad that I hadn't read it until now. Strangely enough the plot is both complicated with many threads, while at the same time simple and quite short. Reading the cover sets up expectations for events far into the story, which is really too bad of publishers. I think it is better to follow the tale as it unfolds.  There is more than enough waiting on events without the cover description making it worse.

The essence of the story is more about the natures of each of the main characters and how they struggle with reconciling themselves to their current conditions, then it is about action anyhow. The Golem represents steadfastness and giving, subsuming of ones own will to serve another, while the Jinni represents the mercurial and, while not exactly selfish, he is pretty oblivious to consequences of his actions, and to the needs and wishes of others. This got a bit heavy handed without noticeably advancing the self-awareness of either character for much of the book.

The story develops very slowly and I am afraid that I got rather impatient at points, waiting for the foreshadowed events to finally occur.  I had also invented several alternative plots in my mind, so in some ways I was rather disappointed with how some of the story lines were resolved.

I feel that Chava doesn't really get the development that she deserves. The whole question of agency is a large one, after all, exactly how much agency did non-golem women have in 1899? I also didn't quite get where this whole golems would become mindless agents of destruction thing came from - in the traditional stories I learned, the reason that a golem would go on a destructive rampage was that they were at the mercy of uncontrolled human emotions - trapped in the flash of rage that can overwhelm a human mind during a crisis in their life. This never quite meshed with me in the book - I see her getting overwhelmed by rage or fear but I don't see why she would feel joy at destruction. I have mentioned before that I very much love Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay and the development of Golems in the Discworld books.  I think there is really much more depth there to be explored and it just kind of sat there.

The book is beautifully written and has the beginnings of a carefully rendered portrait of a period of history, though I have liked for there to be a greater distinction between the different communities. I really enjoyed the peak at immigrant life and the distinctions that used to exist. This was the best part of the book - both the 'openness' of the city as well as the sense of claustrophobia.

Overall, I very much enjoyed the book and will certainly look forward to future books by this author. I do have to admit that I am rather displeased with the ending though. Lack of full resolution is fine with me, so in some ways it was the perfunctory nature of some of the "ends" was unsatisfying. Intellectually, there are some issues with what happened. It is hard to day anything else without giving something away. I do want to point out though, several reviews have called the Golem and the Jinni potentially immortal - that is not true - they may live longer than an ordinary human but they are not immortal - that is in fact an important part of the story so I don't understand why so many reviewers didn't understand that.

Update: The more I think about it, the more upset I am about how the last portion of the book played out. With only one exception (the Jinni) I don't understand why the characters behaved as they did. This includes the antagonist - so think about what happened - the memories, the quote "No golem has ever existed that did not eventually run amok. You must be prepared to destroy her." (from the first chapter of the book) and what follows. Just huh? Why ?  There is a point where the story changes pace completely and the characters are no longer acting in accord with what was slowly and contemplatively constructed for the first 2/3 - 3/4 of the book. It doesn't make sense.

So - three and a half claws (this was four but after sleeping on it, the last quarter of the book really did annoy me)  - I am glad to have read it though I clearly don't love it the way several other people did. Also - if you like fast moving action in your books - avoid this book. It moves very slowly and you will frustrated. 

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