12 Aug / The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Magic happens when narrator George Guidall says “and yet …,” which he intones some dozen times in Helene Wecker‘s bestselling debut already infused with the supernatural. I first heard those two sighing words in Guidall’s distinctly textured voice in Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love; his deep resonance heavy with potential is impossible to forget. That aural magic lives here.
New York City, 1899. First the Golem arrives, made of earth and brought to life by her Master during a ship crossing from Danzig (Poland). When her Master unexpectedly dies before arrival, she jumps off the ship upon being discovered, and walks ashore alone onto Manhattan. Unknowing of human habits and social conventions, she’s saved from destruction by elderly Rabbi Avram after she steals food to help a starving young boy. Avram takes her home, names her Chava – from chai for ‘life’ – and begins to instruct her on how to navigate her unfamiliar surroundings.
Not far from the Jewish Lower East Side, the Jinni suddenly appears as a shocked naked man on the floor of Boutros Arbeely’s tinsmith shop in Little Syria. Released after hundreds of years in an ancient flask, the Jinni is trapped in human form with iron cuffs still encircling his wrists, unshakable evidence that he remains shackled to an invisible Master. Arbeely gives him the name Ahmad, trains him as his apprentice, and begins to educate him in the ways of his strange new world.
Chava, acutely aware of all the desires around her, settles into a job at the local bakery. Ahmad works with fire and steel by day, and roams Manhattan by night. When their paths cross one fated evening, Golem and Jinni sense an unexpected familiarity; cautiously, they allow themselves to be drawn toward each other … oh, and yet …
Wecker populates her fin-de-siècle New York and beyond with a superb cast of supporting characters, from an Egyptian doctor-turned-ice cream vendor to a bored society heiress, to a working Irish girl with a desperate secret, to a young shepherdess from centuries past, and so many more. She intertwines the immigrant Jewish and Arab communities – more magic! – as each unknowingly nurtures the otherwordly beings as they adjust and adapt to everyday human lives. All must work together when Yehudah Schaalman, carrying centuries of destructive incarnations – each a testament to the evils of every organized religion — arrives in New York seeking new power …
Wecker’s inventive novel is an old-fashioned epic love story that relies on all of lower Manhattan to craft the possibility of a happy ending. Heart-thumping escapes, possessions that span continents and centuries, missed opportunities, neverending death, pitiless betrayal, and, most importantly, unbounded love – yes, all that’s in there … and so much more than you ever expected. So, did I mention … magic?