My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As a debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is an intriguing magical realist-historical crossover novel about New York immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. The concept is easy to love: A bound Jinni, Ahmad, is freed from his copper flask in a Syrian tinsmith’s shop in Lower Manhattan, while in a Jewish neighborhood nearby, a golem, Chava, finds herself masterless and alone. The two meet and form a troubled companionship, unaware that the only person on Earth who knows both their natures has trailed them to New York and intends to use their power for his own gain.
Despite the simplicity of the central story–two immigrants meet in a new place and try to make a go of it–the novel is rich with historical detail and uses many points of view to encompass a layered storyline and large cast of characters. The story is sometimes unwieldy, and the many POVs bog down the climax and denouement, but it’s hard to imagine how else the story could handle the sheer volume of world-building it has to do: Besides reconstructing turn-of-the-century Manhattan, it builds the world of the jinn, as well as the Kabbalistic magic that creates and controls the golem. The novel comes out to be a tome, but most of it is delightfully inventive, dynamically plotted, and engrossing.
Part of me hoped for a deeper dive into the novel’s potentially beautiful thematic territory–anything from the depth of the respective Jewish and Arabic cultures to the deep sense of displacement, beyond simple homesickness, that comes from emigration. These are present in the novel, but don’t resonate as much as they might have. The Golem and the Jinni is a relatively straightforward story that covers a lot of ground, showing us a slice of Arab and Jewish history before the intense politicization of 1948 and beyond, when both communities were still fleeing Old World masters to face the same hardships and hopes in the New World.
I’d give it four stars except for the few places where the plot felt labored; mostly, though, I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to more from Helene Wecker. For another inventive (but considerably more baroque) novel about turn-of-the-century New York, check out Mark Halprin’s Winter’s Tale.