Two supernatural beings — a Golem, a woman of clay, conjured up by a disgraced rabbi who engages in dangerous Kabbalistic arts, and a Jinni, a shape-shifting fire creature born in the Syrian desert in the seventh century, are drawn together on the streets of New York in 1899. It sounds far-fetched. But in her first novel, “The Golem and the Jinni,” a blend of historic fiction and fantasy with a dash of sci-fi and a sprinkling of philosophical discourse about faith and free will, Helene Wecker makes it work.
One of the wonders of the book is Wecker’s elegant structure, which sets up plot reflections and echoes of themes as she follows the Golem and the Jinni, both inspired by folklore, backward and forward in time, and fits the two into unexpected patterns with the other characters in the novel.
The Golem is brought to life in the hold of a steamship by her master, a furniture maker named Rotfeld. He has asked Jehudah Schaalman, a rabbi driven out by his congregation for dabbling in the supernatural, to make him a golem that can pass for human, intending her to be his wife. He wants her to be curious, intelligent, and proper. “She’ll still be a golem,” Schaalman warns. “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.” Schaalman gives the new master two spells — one to bring the Golem to life, the other to destroy her.
When her master dies aboard ship, the Golem is stranded. Adrift among crowds of new immigrants on the Lower East Side, she is taken in by Avram Meyer, a retired Orthodox rabbi. He names her Chava. She is safe, but rudderless. Tailored to sense her master’s thoughts and respond without thinking, she is frequently overwhelmed as she taps into the unspoken fears and desires of the humans around her in the city. Avram finds her a job at a bakery. Soon the Golem is hard at work, shaping rolls and twisting pretzels with uncanny precision. But at night, when humans sleep, she grows increasingly restless.
The Jinni, a volatile fire creature, has been imprisoned within a copper flask for a millennium under circumstances he can’t recall. Boutrous Arbeely, a Syrian Christian tinsmith hired to do repairs, frees him unexpectedly. Working with Arbeely, who names him Ahmad, the Jinni becomes a master metalworker, creating fantastical gold and silver birds, striking bejeweled necklaces, and a ceiling of tin that re-creates the Syrian desert, the “portrait of an ancient memory.”
Wecker’s portrait of the shared experience of Jewish and Arab immigrants feels like a walk back in time, exploring the “wondrous and terrifying” city from the harbor view at Castle Gardens to the carriage roads of Central Park, from the Yiddish speaking shops to the coffeehouses of Little Syria in Lower Manhattan.
Most important, Wecker gives her main characters appealing emotional resonance, through their inner thoughts, which are not so inhuman after all, and their conversation. The “glowing man” and the clay woman share the loneliness of not fitting in. “Passing as human was a constant strain,” Wecker writes. The two are both trapped. The Golem yearns for a master because her destiny is to serve; the Jinni craves freedom, as he is bound to human form by an iron cuff welded onto his wrist by an ancient wizard’s spell.
Wecker maintains her novel’s originality as she orchestrates a satisfying and unpredictable ending. The Golem and the Jinni is a continuous delight — provocative, atmospheric, and superbly paced.
Jane Ciabattari is vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle. Reach her at email@example.com.