“The Golem and the Jinni” is a compelling, magical folk tale that tells the story of two mystical beings who find themselves drawn to each other on the lower East Side of New York City at the turn of the last century.
In Jewish tradition, the golem is an artificial being shaped by out of clay, often to serve its creator. According to Talmudic legend, Adam is called “golem,” meaning “body without a soul” for the first 12 hours of his existence.
Helene Wecker reminds us early in her novel that “golems are built for protection and brute force, not for the pleasures of a bed.” Her golem, eventually called Chava, is made by an unscrupulous mystic for a shy young man who departs with her from Poland to New York City mere days after her fabrication. Yet when she arrives, the Golem finds herself alone and eventually working in a lower-East Side bakery.
In Arabic mythology, the jinni is a supernatural spirit below the level of angels and devils. The jinni is a being of flame or air and is capable of assuming human or animal form, yet free from all physical restraints.
Wecker’s jinni, called Ahmad and born in 7th-century Syria, is released from a metal oil flask in late 19th-century New York. Though he takes human form, the Jinni is really a living spark of fire that can be easily extinguished. He becomes a metal smith, designing everything from tin ceilings to delicate jewelry.
On a chance meeting, the Jinni is immediately attracted to the Golem. He sees her as “a puzzle waiting to be solved, a mystery better than any mere distraction.” Sensing a mystical bond, the Golem and the Jinni agree to explore their new city one evening per week.
But their lives — together and apart — are hardly idyllic. Each being is pursued by its past. The Jinni must evade ibn Malik, who is bent on revenge. The Golem must do the same with Yehudah Schaalman, who has spent years trying to learn the secret of “Life Eternal” and who is, in Wecker’s hands, a remarkably malevolent mystic.
But “The Golem and the Jinni” is not mere romantic fantasy. It is a glorious rendering of New York City 100 years ago. Period detail and the crazy-quilt of ethnicity are rendered against the folklore of disparate traditions. A great deal of what the book is lies not just in the predicaments of the supernatural characters at its core, but in its myriad of secondary characters, from the compassionate elderly rabbi who names Chava to the young socialite who embraces Ahmad, from the secretive ice cream vendor to the young free thinker who eventually weds a kind woman he doesn’t believe exists.
Midway through this surprisingly addictive novel, the Jinni tells the Golem: “We could walk all night long and only see a fraction of the city. If all you’ve seen is your own neighborhood, then you have no idea.” It’s a walk worth taking, this spellbinding first novel Helene Wecker has conjured up. Readers should spend some time with “The Golem and the Jinni.” Until they do, they “have no idea.”
Steven Whitton is an English professor at Jacksonville State University.