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 ...
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).
Full Review (1311 words).
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.
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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