This is yet another book I didn’t expect to like, since I am not a fan of fantasy or magical realism. But of course, I loved it.
It’s an immigrant story in a way, about two very different beings who end up in the melting pot of New York in 1899. One is a golem, and one a jinni.
In Jewish folklore, a golem is a human-like figure made out of clay and brought to life by esoteric magic known only to a select few adept at Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah. Golems – unnaturally strong and unquestionably obedient to their creators – were said to have been created from time to time in olden days to help defend Jews from anti-Semitic attacks.
In Wecker’s story, a Prussian man who cannot find a wife goes to a reclusive old man to request that a golem be made for him to serve as a wife. He packs up the golem and sets out for New York. He dies en route, however, and the golem is left to fend for herself. A kindly rabbi on the street recognized what she was, and took her in to protect her, naming her Chava.
Meanwhile, a parallel story is going on with the unexpected release of a jinni from an old copper flask in a tinsmith shop in New York’s Little Syria. Jinnis (or genies) are the products of Middle Eastern and Muslim mythology, and are said to be spirits made of fire. Many, however, can make themselves look like humans. The tinsmith who inadvertently releases the jinni, in the guise of a handsome young man, vows to protect him much as the rabbi did with Chava, and names him Ahmad.
It is only a matter of time before this woman of earth and man of fire meet, and realize they have more in common than might at first be apparent. As they navigate through their unexpected lives in America, they also get to know each other, helping each other to understand what it means to be human, and maybe even what it means to love.
Discussion: The author’s depiction of the ways the golem and the jinni taught each other how to be, and learned to respect each other’s perspectives, is thoroughly engaging. I also enjoyed the author’s exploration of what it might be like to wake up in an alien world, all alone, having to hide one’s true nature and learn to survive. There are the inevitable humorous moments, as when the jinni, who was born in the 7th Century, marvels at humans:
“What drove these short-lived creatures to be so oddly self-destructive, with their punishing journeys and brutal battles?”
Or when the jinni is talking to his benefactor, Arbeely, trying to understand what Christianity is:
“‘Let me see if I understand correctly now,’ the Jinni said at one point. ‘You and your relations believe that a ghost living in the sky can grant you wishes.’
‘That is a gross oversimplification, and you know it.’
‘And yet, according to men, we jinn are nothing but children’s tales?”
Later, he talks to Chava about it, who offers a more nuanced perspective:
“‘…perhaps the humans did create their God. But does that make him less real? Take this arch. [They are in Central Park.] They created it. Now it exists.’
‘Yes, but it doesn’t grant wishes,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t do anything.
‘True,’ she said. ‘But I look at it, and I feel a certain way. Maybe that’s its purpose.”
And there are plenty of touching moments, such as when the rabbi who “adopted” Chava, and who is an aged widower, explains to her his idea of what love is:
“All of us are lonely at some point or another, no matter how many people surround us. And then, we meet someone who seems to understand. She smiles, and for a moment the loneliness disappears.”
As an interesting side note, the author has said in interviews that she is Jewish and her husband is Arab-American; their fathers were both immigrants to the U.S.
Evaluation: This author clearly loves her characters, and I couldn’t help but do the same! I was enchanted by this unusual, imaginative, and heartwarming story, and would love to see a sequel!
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013