Review: The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

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

Ahmad is a djinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.  Though he no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable bond of iron binds him to the physical world.

The Golem and The Djinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends, whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds.  But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice…

Sometimes, books can come too highly recommended.  The quotes from fellow authors can seem too hyperbolic, or sycophantic, especially when it’s a debut novel they’re talking about.  I was worried that I might be disappointed by the first novel from Helene Wecker, The Golem and The Djinni, published by Blue Door, when I read the back splash – “If you were bewitched by The Night Circus… If you were mesmerised by A Discovery of Witches… If you were enthralled by Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell…” Okay, I’ve not read A Discovery of Witches, but I thought The Night Circus and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell were brilliant, certainly bewitching and enthralling.  Still, I was worried – when I first read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I really felt it was something special and unique, with two strong yet contrasting main characters, totally different but equally fascinating, whose competing motivations and approaches are eventually drawn together.  I had no idea what an apt comparison that would be.

Of course, The Golem and The Djinni has two very different, very powerful, characters at its centre – Chava, a women made of clay, and Ahmad, a man of fire, both immigrants who find themselves in New York City in 1899. In many ways, their experiences mirror those of the people who really did find themselves sailing in under the gaze of the Statue of Liberty, into a new and unfamiliar city full of unanticipated dangers, but they differ too, in the most essential manner.  They are not human, but creatures of East European Jewish and Arabian mythology and magic, respectively.

I really enjoy fairy tales and mythical characters in modern settings, so I was thrilled when I realised what I could expect.  I was even more pleased to find that this is an extremely accomplished debut, with completely engaging characters in a beautifully described, fully realised setting.  I feel like I would recognise the streets of Little Syria and the Jewish quarter from the vivid settings Wecker creates; even the smells and flavours of food and drink already seem like my own memories.

A word of caution – this isn’t a fast paced story.  There is certainly peril and mystery – will Chava and Ahmad be discovered? Can Chava control her strength? How was Ahmad trapped, centuries ago? However, a lot of the book is spent observing the choices and paths that the two creatures make and take, which impel them inevitably towards a final confrontation with their maker.  It’s also not a short book, at around 450 pages in my edition. Even so, I enjoyed every moment of the narrative, as it drew me in and made me care deeply about these two people and their fragile relationship with each other and those surrounding them.

When I finished the book, on Saturday, at first I felt bereft. I had so enjoyed my journey with Chava and Ahmad that I didn’t know what to read next – whatever it was, I wouldn’t be able to have the same experience again.  I actually tweeted Helene Wecker to let her know how much I’d enjoyed it, but also that I was jealous of, and excited for, people who had it still to read.  Perhaps a holiday to New York will help – any offers?

The Golem and The Djinni is published by Blue Door (Harper Collins), in August 2013.

Kate Neilan

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