In a Nutshell
I am neither Golem nor Jinni, but reading this made me a slave to the masterful (and magical) story and prose of Helene Wecker. I’d gladly be imprisoned in a lamp if I could take this book with me.
The Whole Enchilada
Helene Wecker chose wisely when she decided to tell a story of immigration–after all, who can resist a tale of leaving everything that is known to make a new life in a strange land? It’s the quintessential American story. But to tell that story from the POV of two culturally specific mythological creatures, both adrift in an unknown world, with no knowledge of even their own beginnings, was a stroke of brilliance!
Chava is a Golem, a creature from Jewish mythology who is made of clay and lives only to serve her master; but when her master dies before she’s even 24 hours old Chava faces something no Golem has ever faced before… Freedom.
Ahmad is a Jinni, a restless fire spirit of the Syrian desert, feared by nomadic tribesman, coveted by ruthless power-seekers. When Ahmad emerges from a copper lamp (a customer’s family heirloom) in a tinsmith’s shop in 1899 Manhattan he has no knowledge of how he got there… or the past few hundred years! Trapped in human form, Ahmad must learn to master his restless nature to fit into the immigrant culture around him.
These two unique and lonely creatures don’t meet until halfway through the novel, when we as readers have already fallen in love with their individual characters, as well as the city and people who provide the backdrop and rich detail of their stories. You might think that’s a long time to wait for our two title characters to come across each other, but somehow it isn’t at all. Wecker does such a wonderful job of weaving their parallel stories–almost mirror images of each other–that the fact that they don’t meet doesn’t feel odd at all. Instead it gives them the necessary space to develop on their own, like twin siblings placed in different classrooms to prevent them from exerting too much influence on each other.
Once Chava and Ahmad do meet the story explodes, building speed like a freight train to the end. I kept wanting to tell myself to slow down and take my time with the last chapters, but I couldn’t stop myself from tripping over words and impatiently turning pages in my NEED to get to the end; to find out What. Happens. Next!
I envy Helene Wecker the fun she must have had researching this book. With two such rich cultures to delve into I’m only amazed that she was able to stop with just one book. Perhaps she hasn’t stopped though. Perhaps we will be blessed with more of Helene Wecker’s writing. I hope so. I would read a hundred such books.