Summary and book reviews of The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni

By Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2013,
    496 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2014,
    512 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Book Summary

In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker's debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

The Golem's life began in the hold of a steamship. The year was 1899; the ship was the Baltika, crossing from Gdansk to New York. The Golem's master, a man named Otto Rotfeld, had smuggled her aboard in a crate and hidden her amongst the luggage.

Rotfeld was a Polish Jew from Konin, a northern village near the sea. The only son of a well-to-do furniture-maker, Rotfeld had inherited the family business sooner than expected, on his parents' untimely death from scarlet fever. But Rotfeld was an arrogant, feckless sort of man, with no good sense to speak of; and before five years had elapsed, the business lay before him in tatters.

Rotfeld stood in the ruins and took stock. He was thirty-three years old. He wanted a wife, and he wanted to go to America.

The wife was the larger problem. On top of his arrogant disposition, Rotfeld was gangly and unattractive, and had a tendency to leer. Women were disinclined to be alone with him. A few matchmakers had ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Compare the Golem and the Jinni's origins. How are their personalities reflected in their origins? How are the creatures similar, and how do those similarities draw them together? How are they different? What are their individual strengths—and what makes them weak? How do these influence their choices as events unfold? How do the Golem and the Jinni make each other better beings?

  2. What are Chava and Ahmad like when we first meet them? What about at the end of the story? How do events impact who they are and what they believe about themselves and each other?

  3. Why do you think Helene Wecker chose to set the story in turn-of-the-century New York? How do the experiences of the Golem and the Jinni mirror those of their fellow immigrants? ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

I thought the author failed to take advantage of the culturally established traits of the golem and jinni, changing their natures to fit her narrative rather than sculpting the story to fit the characters. Some aspects of these creatures that are part of long-standing tradition were dropped altogether, others merely referenced in passing. Both creatures have long histories and strong connotations in their specific cultures, and that sense of history and heaviness of meaning were lacking. The end result was that the two felt far too human and not nearly "other" enough to me.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews
Family Circle Magazine

Magical thinking comes alive in an enchanting allegory of the immigrant experience as two mythical beings try to make sense of themselves and the world around them.

New York Daily News

The tale is meant to be magical, and it is, but Wecker’s real sleight of pen is recreating Manhattan as it was then. She has a historian’s grasp of detail and a novelist’s flair.

New York Times Book Review

History, magic and religion braid together in old New York’s tenements…The interplay of loyalties and the struggle to assert reason over emotion keep the pages flipping.

Entertainment Weekly

An intoxicating fusion of fantasy and historical fiction…Wecker’s storytelling skills dazzle…The book’s magic, filtered through the old-time hustle and bustle of the Lower East Side, lingers long after the final page.

New York Times

The author makes you care enough about the humanity of these magical spirits to not only see them through to the end but also to regret that you’ve reached the last page.

Boston Globe

Wecker maintains her novel’s originality as she orchestrates a satisfying and unpredictable ending. The Golem and the Jinni is a continuous delight — provocative, atmospheric, and superbly paced.

USA Today

In the best instances, you don’t merely read a book -- you dive in and happily immerse yourself, forgetting the troubles of daily life for a while. The Golem and the Jinni offers just such an absorbing experience.

Library Journal

Original and fresh…A fascinating blend of historical fiction and Jewish and Arab folklore

Booklist

Wecker does not disappoint as she keeps the surprises coming in this unusual story of the intersection of two magical beings and their joint impact on their parochial immigrant communities.

Publishers Weekly

Wecker deftly layers their story over those of the people they encounter...[A] spellbinding blend of fantasy and historical fiction

Kirkus Reviews

Wecker begins with a juicy premise…and great adventures ensue…She writes skillfully, nicely evoking the layers of alienness that fall upon strangers in a strange land.

Author Blurb Tom Reiss, author of The Orientalist and The Black Count
From its eerie opening pages to its shattering conclusion, The Golem and the Jinni is an astonishing debut novel that sweeps us into a gaslit alternate reality rich enough to get lost in.

Author Blurb Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches
With a delightful blend of the prosaic and the fanciful, The Golem and the Jinni explores what it means to be human as Chava and Ahmad struggle to live and find love while overcoming the powerful adversary who threatens to destroy them.

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Jinn and Other Sprites

Most Westerners are generally introduced to genies through the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights). In it, Aladdin is tricked into obtaining an old oil lamp in which a jinni has been imprisoned. Through various twists and turns in the story, the jinni is released from his confinement and eventually helps Aladdin obtain his greatest wishes: wealth, fame, and the love of a beautiful princess.

Aladdin's magic lamp The English word for these beings – genie – comes from the French word for spirit: génie (the result of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights being first published in Europe in French.) The Arabic word for jinni comes from janna, which means to conceal or ...

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