This week I’m recommending `The Golem and the Djinni’, a warm-hearted first novel by Helene Wecker. The title makes this sound like some awful mash-up Horror movie along the lines of `Godzilla versus Mothra’ or `Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man’. In fact, it’s a sensitive story about an impossible friendship between a creature of earth and a creature of fire. `The Golem and the Djinni’ (or `The Golem and the Jinni’ as it is in America) came out in 2013 and is now available in paperback and as an ebook or an audio download. It is historical Urban Fantasy, largely set in late 19th century New York.
A wise old Rabbi finds a Golem – a woman made of clay and animated by Jewish magic – wandering the streets of Manhatten. Rabbi Meyer learns that she was created in Europe and bound to a man who was emigrating to America, but her `Master’ happened to die on the voyage just after bringing her to life. Due to their inhuman strength and destructive tendencies, Golems are dangerous creatures. Rabbi Meyer fears that he ought to destroy this Golem but he knows that she isn’t to blame for her existence, so he names her Chava and teaches her to pass for human. As a test, the Rabbi introduces her to his nephew Michael, who runs a refuge for Jewish immigrants who have just arrived in America. Michael is attracted to what he thinks is a shy young widow. To solve the problem of Chava’s sleepless energy, Rabbi Meyer finds her a job in a Jewish bakery.
Meanwhile, a few streets away in the area known as `Little Syria’, a poor tin-smith called Arbeely is repairing a very old flask that belongs to Maryam, a kindly woman who runs the local coffee shop. With a flash of light, a naked young man appears in his workshop. Arbeely has accidentally released a Djinni who has been imprisoned in the flask for centuries. Djinns are creatures of fire but this one is trapped in human form by an iron band that he cannot get off his wrist. The Djinni guesses that he must have been enslaved by a powerful magician but he can’t remember how this happened. Arbeely finds the Djinni some clothes and gives him a name – Ahmad. As Ahmad proves to have an extraordinary talent for metalworking, Arbeely passes the Djinni off as his apprentice, newly arrived from Syria. Only Saleh, a crazy ice-cream seller who used to be a doctor, can see that Ahmad is not human.
Haunted by memories of his desert palace and his fascination with a Bedouin girl, handsome Ahmad wanders the city each night. He becomes the lover of a wealthy young lady, but their relationship means little to him. When he encounters the Golem, it is obvious that their natures and personalities are very different. Yet Chava is the one person who can understand how difficult Ahmad finds it to live as a human. Their friendship is interrupted when Chava’s instinct to use her strength to protect someone causes a crisis in her life. After Yehudah Schaalman, the old man who created the Golem, arrives in New York in search of the secret to eternal life, it becomes clear that the Golem and the Djinni are linked in an unexpected and dangerous way. Both of them will have to make terrible sacrifices to stop an ancient evil and save the lives of people they have come to care about.
If you go into this book expecting frequent shocks and gore, you will be disappointed. This is a novel about human nature and the ways in which people can or should connect with each other. The pace of the story seems very slow at first. The Golem and the Djinni don’t even meet until about a third of the way through the book. Wecker takes her time lovingly describing two ethnic groups, the Jews and the Syrians (some Muslim, some Christian) struggling to establish themselves in a new country. These groups are suspicious of each other, but within themselves have an immensely strong sense of community. This is exemplified by Maryam’s many acts of discreet but practical charity, such as persuading local restaurants to buy ice-cream all year round so that Saleh won’t starve in winter. `The Golem and the Djinni’ initially seems to have a collection of case histories instead of a plot. There are no minor characters. The reader gets to hear everyone’s back story. There are detailed accounts of the mysterious affliction which ruined Saleh’s life, Schaalman’s unsavoury career, the romantic life of one of the bakery assistants, and the history of a Bedouin family who were able to see the Djinni’s palace. These may seem irrelevant, but rest assured these disparate pieces of the story all come together in the final chapters to create a dramatic climax.
What kept me reading in the early stages of the book was Wecker’s general gift for characterization and her solemn heroine Chava in particular. The Golem is a creature out of Jewish legend, made famous (or infamous) by a series of early German horror films (`Der Golem’ made in 1920 is still pretty scary). Schaalman warns his client, “No golem has ever existed that did not eventually run amok. You must be prepared to destroy her.” Wecker has imagined what it would be like to have a Golem’s powers and limitations. Chava doesn’t need to eat and cannot sleep but she has been warned that she must never tell anyone her true nature. There is a poignant scene in which Chava is so desperate for something to do during a long sleepless night in her tiny boarding-house room that she is reduced to counting the number of boards in the floor. Once she meets the Djinni she begins to spend her nights exploring the rooftops and parks of New York with him. Losing her Master on the voyage to America has left her with a terrifying lack of purpose. She no longer knows what she is for and she is almost overwhelmed by the conflicting needs and desires she can sense in the people around her. Chava lacks experience of the human world but her creator gave her intelligence and curiosity so she’s a remarkably quick learner. This combination of power and vulnerability make Chava one of the most appealing Fantasy heroines I’ve encountered in long time.
On the surface, Ahmad is a less sympathetic character. He seems ungrateful towards the people who have taken him in and too selfish to comprehend the damage he does to his human lovers. Djinns in bottles have often been used to comic effect in Fantasy fiction or films (such as the wonderful `The Thief of Baghdad’) but Wecker treats the Djinni’s situation with complete seriousness. This freedom loving creature from the empty desert is trapped in a cold, crowded city where water is a constant danger to him. He doesn’t understand the ties of love and friendship, religion and culture that bind people together but he does have the spirit of a true artist. It’s hard not to be touched when Ahmad creates an image of his lost desert on a tin ceiling. Wecker even manages to evoke some sympathy for Schaalman, who abandoned his religious studies after a vision that he was already damned and became an unscrupulous dabbler `in the more dangerous of the Kabbalistic arts’. The reason for this vision is eventually explained but whether it was really impossible for Schaalman to be anything but evil remains an open question.
One of the major themes of this book is how far any being, whether they are golem, djinni or human, is compelled to act in a particular way because of their nature. Chava is shocked to discover how much of her character appears to be dictated by her original Master’s `grocery list of …desires in a wife’. She wonders if this means that `she can take no credit for her own discoveries, her accomplishments?’ Whether constraints take the form of magical words written on paper or a particular combination of genes, the problem is much the same. Every reader of `The Golem and the Djinni’ will have to make up their own mind about how far Chava and Ahmad are responsible for the consequences of their actions. Until two weeks time…