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The Golem and the Jinni
by Helen Wecker
Harper, $13.99, 486pp
Published: December 2013

What a delight this book was. How rich and evocative. A tale of magic, romance and tragedy in Old New York.

Wecker has constructed a tale about a Golem made for a Prussian Jew to be his wife. It is 1899. Old creepy Schaalman who lives in a squalid hut in the woods creates the creature from mud (and other things) and once the correct words are spoken, she can be activated. A feckless furniture maker named Otto Rotfeld who wants a new life and a wife to go with him has requested her existence.

He gets on a ship in Danzig and sails off to New York, with the Golem in a trunk.

Once at sea, he activates the creature, a young woman with nice features, brown hair cut to her shoulders properly dressed---she has intelligence and curiosity and is a slave to the will of the person who awakens her. She can understand anyone’s language. She’s as strong as several men.

A few days later: Rotfeld gets acute appendicitis and though the ship’s doctor does what he can, Rotfeld dies and his body consigned to the sea.

Now the Golem must face the world on her own: a clean, virginal soul and in 1899 New York City to boot. The humans around her think she is a widow.

In Lower Manhattan in an area called Little Syria, Boutros Arbeely is a tinsmith and he receives an old copper flask which needs some dents repaired. He puts it in a vise, touches it with a small soldering iron and erases a loop of scroll work. Bang flash: there on the floor of his shop lies a naked man whom he eventually names Ahmad. Ahmad is indeed a Jinni. And Boutros recognizes that immediately. (Well—he did come out of a flask—but unable to grant wishes.) Boutros tells his friends and neighbors that the Jinni is Bedouin—since most are not acquainted with the nomadic people.

Boutros takes the Jinni on as an apprentice tinsmith especially since the Jinni can control fire.

Both the Golem and Jinni obviously have to make big adjustments in their lives: the Golem because not only is the world fresh and new; she has no experience to base her decisions on. Luckily she finds herself living with a kind old rabbi who names her Chava and really helps her to discover herself. She eventually ends up working in a Jewish bakery.

The Jinni is hundreds of years old: he has had plenty of experience—but in the empty wastes of the desert. He has had little interaction with crowds bigger than a Bedouin clan. Throughout the novel, Wecker gives us the tale of how he came to be entrapped in a flask centuries ago by an old desert recluse who is much like Schaalman in Prussia.

Thus these two “immigrants” learn about humans, city living, work, and even love. The two acquire idiosyncrasies along the way as they work to fit into the human world to appear normal. When the two meet up accidently in a park near the Bowery; they both recognize the other for who they are: not human. The Jinni knows she is made of earth and the Golem knows he is made of fire.

And thus an amazing, enthralling friendship begins; but cautiously. One the other needs since only between the two of them can they discuss the strangeness of humanity and not hide their true natures.

Their lives are not completely an idyllic voyage of discovery of course: Schaalman decides to leave Prussia and come to New York City curious to see what Rotfeld did with his Golem. And the Jinni struggles with his affection for a wealthy young woman who must marry a man she does not love. He also struggles with his need to BE a Jinni and not a sort of half man half magical creature rootless and lost in a world not of his choice.

This is a compelling emotional journey for the two characters and the reader. Wecker reveals a fascinating rich, colorful 1890’s New York.

Truly: if you love whimsy; if you love a dramatic tale, with a slightly skewed reality, lightly coated with magic and set in a colorful, crowded historical world—this is your book. ~~~Sue Martin

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