Turn off the cell phone, shut down the computer and settle down in your comfiest chair. You’re in for the most exciting fantasy debut since Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a decade ago. Helene Wecker must be a born writer; there is no other way to account for the quality of her prose, as phenomenal as any of the supernatural wonders she delivers in the glorious The Golem and the Jinni.
Through turnings of fate typical of the history of our immigrant nation, two uncanny beings from overseas wind up in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. One is a creature from Jewish folklore made out of clay—no, not a dreidel, but a golem, a monster animated by mystical secrets of rabbinic lore. The other is a jinni, belonging to that volatile race of spirits who ride the winds of the Arabian desert, until he was captured by human wizardry and confined to a copper flask for a thousand years.
The ensuing narrative is so intricately wrought that it resists the reviewer’s effort to bind it in anything like a copper flask . . . but I’ll try. An insane rabbi-sorcerer bestows upon his female golem Chava the demure and quick-witted nature of a Jane Austen heroine, and she comes to works in a kosher bakery on the Lower East Side. Meanwhile, the jinni Ahmad possesses all the wickedness and charm of a supercharged Don Juan whose irresistible power over human girls becomes fraught with terrible consequences.
At the heart of the novel burns the two creatures’ evolving friendship with each other, and the risks they take in order to grope towards an understanding and transcendence of their own dangerous natures. When released from human control, both the golem and the jinni tend inevitably towards the pitiless destruction of humanity. But the fateful encounter of Chava and Ahmad changes all that. Is it conceivable that two such beings could ever come to love each other?
Wecker’s imaginative coup of wedding Jewish to Arab mythology—and transporting all of it to lower Manhattan—is so brilliant that it ought to be considered at the next round of Middle East peace talks. The Golem and the Jinni is a surpassingly wonderful tale for our time.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE
Read our interview with Helene Wecker for The Golem and the Jinni.