Helene Wecker’s ‘The Golem and the Jinni’

May 17, 2013

You think a relationship is complicated when a woman is from Venus and a man is from Mars? Trust me, that’s a piece of cake compared with the hurdles that a modest golem and a mercurial jinni face when they fall in love. After all, a golem is a monster made of clay — the cool earth — and a jinni is a creature born of fire. And in Helene Wecker’s charming, albeit way too long, first novel, “The Golem and the Jinni,” their relationship is tested by a megalomaniacal Bedouin wizard, the golem’s evil creator, and all the enticements that Manhattan can offer a couple of curious immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.

I can’t make this stuff up. Fortunately, Wecker can.

It would be impossible in this space to do justice to Wecker’s humongous research into golems and jinnis and what lower Manhattan was like before World War I, but, suffice it to say, she has done her homework. Likewise, it would be difficult to describe all the characters who come and go in this doorstop of a book, some drawn far more authentically than others.

But the folks who really matter are the golem and the jinni, and they are among my favorite fictional people I spent time with this spring. Chava, the golem, is created by a genius psychopath named Yehudah Schaalman. He lives in a shack in the woods outside Danzig and makes Chava from clay for a fellow named Rotfeld who wants a wife to bring to America. “Give her curiosity,” Rotfeld demands. “And intelligence. I can’t stand a silly woman. Oh, and make her proper. Not . . . lascivious. A gentleman’s wife.”

But she is still a golem, her creator reminds him, which means she’ll have “the strength of a dozen men. She’ll protect you without thinking, and she’ll harm others to do it. No golem has ever existed that did not eventually run amok. You must be prepared to destroy her.” (Precisely why a wicked, ambitious sorcererwho can create golems from clay lives like Hobo Joe in the woods is never explained.)


”The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker. (Harper/Harper)

Unfortunately, on the boat to the New World, Rotfeld dies, leaving poor Chava to navigate New York on her own.

And then there’s Ahmad, the jinni. About the same time that Chava arrives at Ellis Island, a humble tinsmith in Lower Manhattan polishes a flask and accidentally liberates him. Ahmad is in most ways the opposite of Chava: an impetuous lothario and libertine. His soul is as hot as Chava’s is cold. Alas, Ahmad is imprisoned by an iron cuff on his wrist that can never be removed, so he is not the sort of jinni who can grant a wish (or three). But he can make his skin so hot that he molds metals with his bare hands. He becomes a partner in the tinsmith’s business.

Meanwhile, Chava is befriended by a kindly retired rabbi who — unlike every other human being on the Lower East Side — can see right away that she is a golem. He gets her work at a bakery and then dies.

This will prove especially problematic when her creator becomes convinced that the secret to immortality can be found in Lower Manhattan. He has no idea she’s there, but he winds up in exactly the same tenement for new arrivals where the kindly rabbi’s nephew works.

The book is awash in this sort of coincidence, including Chava and Ahmad’s eventual, inevitable meeting. But as different as the two are, they share a boundless curiosity and friendship grounded in one reality: They will always be outsiders in this strange new world.

At these moments I most appreciated what an inventive and utterly lovely story Wecker is sharing. Unfortunately, these moments are swamped by pages and pages of the jinni’s ancient backstory, historical minutiae and the histrionics and melodrama of the sorcerer’s quest for eternal life.

Nevertheless, Wecker is a gifted new voice. I won’t reveal here whether opposites do, in the end, attract. But I’m glad that her talents have been set free in this novel.

bookworld@washpost.com

Bohjalian is the author of 16 books. His new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” will be published in July.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI

By Helene Wecker

Harper. 486 pp. $26.99

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