The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – Book Review!

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic, created to be the wife of a man who 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.

Leah and I are continuing our streak of backlist buddy reads, and this months pick was a book that took a little while for me to warm to, but I adored it by the end. Make sure you check out Leah’s brilliant review here.

The Golem and the Jinni is a meandering tale that weaves in lore from both Jewish and Arab culture. It’s a story that takes it’s time and, because of that, one you have to take your time reading. The story follows Chava and Ahmed. Chava is a Golem, created for the sole purpose of being a wife, but shortly after she is awoken her husband/master dies and she finds herself in New York City with no idea how she will survive. Ahmed is a Jinni who finds himself awoken after years of imprisonment in a jar passed down through generations. Both of these characters find themselves out of their depths, and both have to rely heavily on the kindness of strangers to find their way in the world, but there is more than that that binds them.

Chava and Ahmed were both incredibly readable POV’s. Chava got my empathy because she was essentially a new born adult, thrust into a world she had no idea how to traverse and with the constant need to serve every single person around her. Ahmed, though better suited to fit into the world he finds himself, is still a slave to his master, even if they are no where to be found. The thing I loved most about these characters though was Weckers ability to perfectly show their strengths and weaknesses through their gender roles. Chava, a Golem who was created to serve her master, now finds herself hearing the needs of everyone she passes. She is incredibly strong, both in physical and mental will, but she is a women. Someone not allowed to be out alone, someone who belongs to another person. Ahmed, a Jinni who has spent years giving in to his whims and flights of fancy and, as a man, he has the ability to travel the City without fear and still able to do as he pleases with little consequence.

We do get multiple other POV’s thrown into the story, something I found a little jarring at the start, not sure why they were included or what they were leading too but you have to have faith that Wecker knows exactly what she is doing because by the end, those other chapters and POV’s were absolutely pivotal to Chava and Ahmed’s story and added a sense of danger and excitement to an otherwise meandering story. All of the side characters are incredibly well built, each with their own personality, wants and needs and it almost feels as though you are reading about historical figures with the amount of detail and information Wecker graces us with.

I loved learning, not just about Jewish and Arab folklore, but also their culture. We get a true deep dive into the day to day lives of these people living in New York, learning their cultural and religious habits and I definitely enjoyed these parts of the story. Wecker spends a good amount of time fleshing out these cultures as well as the setting and, with any book set in New York, the city becomes a character in itself. She shows the historical New York, with it’s almost micro-states separated by culture and religion and shows how these neighbourhoods had everything they needed in them to survive and I found it extremely engrossing to read about it.

Because we get this in depth insight into our characters, setting and magic, the story did take a little while to get going, it meandered a little for the first 50% or so, and I wasn’t convinced it would be a story that I loved, but the last 25% took off like a rocket and contained the majority of the action and drama scenes from the book. So if I had one, tiny complaint, it would have been for the pacing of the story to be a little more even throughout, because I do feel like some people may be put off by the slow start of this book.

The relationship between Chava and Ahmed was one I just adored reading. The parts of the book where these two are together were by far my favourite, and we really see these two people completely out of their depth and comfort zone coming together, first as friends and then as potentially something more. They are as different as can be; Chava calm, steady and grounded and Ahmed feisty, passionate and more likely to give into his impulses, but as the story goes on and they spend more time around each other, we see them gradually brushing off on each other, almost filling in the gaps of the others personality and allowing them to see things and themselves from a completely different point of view. I adored how slowly their relationship developed and, despite it lacking physical intimacy, it felt incredibly intimate seeing these two people opening up to each other in a world where they would likely be killed if they were found out.

Despite the slow start and meandering way this story was told I adored it. The book ends nicely with no real cliffhanger, so I am incredibly intrigued to see what will happen in the sequel. If you enjoy books that take a real deep dive on the character and world building I can’t recommend this enough!

8 replies »

  1. Becky! You did such a wonderful job with this review, touching on so many of the points we discussed. I also loved the way that Chava and Ahmad complemented each other so beautifully, filling in each other’s gaps, and even their natures – clay and fire, which can work together to create something new and different, which is what they did. I’m looking forward to reading the next book with you!

    Liked by 1 person

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