The Golem and the Jinni is a magical tale about two mythical creatures that cross paths in New York City at the turn of the last century. Recognizing each other as someone outside of humanity – alone and lonely without a sense of community or someone who truly understands them – the two become friends. And, as in the best friendships, they interact in ways that bring out the better natures of each. During the course of the novel, first-time author Helene Wecker leads her readers to ponder such weighty subjects as what it means to be human, the importance of friends, and the place of religion in society.
I have to admit I found this novel a disappointment (and I do realize I'm in the minority in my opinion; many people seem to think it's a delight). I didn't hate it, but it's not one I can wholeheartedly recommend with a clear conscience.
First, I found Wecker's writing style overly simplistic; the narrative voice reminded me of a fairy tale told to children as much as anything else. Indeed, I thought she very easily could have started her story with "Once upon a time…" and it wouldn't have been out of place. Several times I found myself checking to see if I'd accidentally chosen a young adult book, and that lessened its appeal for me. The first half of the novel is quite appropriate for teen readers and I would have recommended it for that audience, but the second half takes such a dark turn that it makes me think twice about endorsing it for readers in that age bracket.
The pacing of the book is also problematic; much of it is exceptionally slow. I couldn't believe how long it took to read the first half – far longer than normal – because I simply didn't care about the story or the characters. There isn't enough drama or action to move the plot forward, just lots of set-up and dialog; the main characters don't even meet until a third of the way through the narrative. It does pick up considerably about halfway through the book, and I suspect that most readers who make it that far will find it satisfying from that point forward. The plot becomes extremely imaginative, there's plenty of verbal and physical conflict, and there's a lovely romantic scene at a dance that could have been taken out of Pride and Prejudice. Although I found the second half much better written and the narrative more inventive, I also think the author took an unnecessarily violent path (with a body count by the book's end that rivals the best Shakespeare tragedies). Normally I don't mind such things, but in this case it simply felt lazy to me, as if the author killed off characters just to conveniently wrap up plot lines.
The setting of 1899 New York City would seem to be an inspired choice that feels right for the subject, and Wecker describes the city and its denizens well. There's a lot more to quality historical fiction than simply describing the environment, however, and the prose never evoked a true sense of time or place; the author's setting seemed far too much like any big city, and with the exception of the occasional horse-drawn carriage seemed like it could have been set in the present. Additionally, the characters' actions and attitudes felt too modern. Those who read a great deal of historical fiction will find this aspect of the novel disappointing.
Finally, I think 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.
Overall, The Golem and the Jinni is a pleasant enough novel, and likely to appeal to readers looking for a light romance or a book with a little magic in it. It's an easy read that may work very well for a beach book.
This review is from the June 19, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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