I first discovered The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker when searching online for Jewish Fantasy books similar to my own spiritual thriller, True Identity. Upon realizing this was her first novel, I was also anxious to read the writings of another new author.
Although the main characters are supernatural beings, The Golem and the Jinni is not a book about fantasy realms, or mythological creatures. It is not a Jewish Lord of the Rings or Narnia-like novel. Set in 1899 Manhattan, it focuses upon being true to one's nature and finding one's place in a new environment. it is about personal discovery and the need to have friends to open up to for support.
Chava is a golem, a creature of earth, created by an elderly Kabbalist, who has spent his life learning dark mystical secrets in an effort to evade death and the consequences of sinful choices. When the master for whom she was created unexpectedly dies during their long cross-Atlantic journey from Europe to New York City, she finds herself without direction, or purpose, in a strange new land. Without a master to serve, she finds she has a telepathic link with anyone nearby and must learn to resist the urge to fulfill their various wishes and desires. Controlling her nature becomes her focus. Afraid of her own strength and uniqueness, she fears personal responsibility and it's consequences. She thinks not of herself, but of the needs of others.
Achmed is a jinni of the Syrian desert who finds himself in the shop of a New York City metal smith who is repairing the bottle that has imprisoned him for the last thousand years. Free from the bottle, he is still held captive by an iron wrist band that keeps him in human form and allows only minimal use of his supernatural abilities. He longs for the freedom he had previous to his captivity, a life without concern for the consequences his actions have on others.
A late-night encounter on a New York City street brings these two opposite beings together. Each of them is instantly aware that the other one, like themselves, is different from the humans that surround them. Able to be honest and share their deepest secrets with each other, they become best friends who both grow from the relationship. Chava learns to be more open and free in her behavior, and Achmed realizes the impact of his choices upon others. Together, they overcome many challenges including a final showdown with one who wishes to enslave both of them.
I would highly recommend reading The Golem and the Jinni and consider it one of the best novels that I have read in a long time, perhaps ever. It amazes me that this is Helene Wecker's first novel, as it is very well written with deep characters, detailed settings and provocative contemplation of faith, relationships and personal identity. I find it interesting that she chose to place the jinni in a Lebanese/Syrian Christian neighborhood and not a Muslim one. I suspect her intent was to focus on the personal growth of her characters while avoiding the political controversies that could come from ones of Muslim and Jewish faith. The golem is, of course, set in a Jewish neighborhood and experiences a broad array of faith perspectives from the ultra-Orthodox to the extreme secular without ever claiming any one of them as her own. I'm anxious to see what Helene Wecker writes next and count myself among her fans.
Author of the spiritual thriller, True Identity