Helene Wecker's debut, The Golem and the Jinni, is a phenomenal tale set during a transformative time in the United States. Opening at the turn of the century in 1899, it follows a dazzling array of characters and history, turning New York City into a fantasy world where they all come together in the melting-pot that is America. There's little doubt as to just why this book has already been nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novel.
Some spoilers below.
Wecker imbues her novel with a real sense of depth to it. Magic exists in subtle, folkloric ways. The story starts off when a wealthy but lonely man, Otto Rotfeld, pays a great sum of money to Yehudah Schaalman to make the perfect wife. The wizard obliges, and crafts a Golem, who accompanies Rotfeld on his journey to America, where he can get a new start. In the hold of a cargo ship, a Golem is awoken only to have her existence is shattered when Rotfeld dies halfway across the Atlantic, leaving her overwhelmed and directionless.
At the same time, a Jinni is awoken by a tin smith named Boutros Arbeely in Little Syria, a thousand years after he was placed in an oil lamp. A powerful magical creature, he's constrained by a metal band around his wrist, trapping him in human form. He's disoriented, finding himself across the world and out of time, trapped by a wizard with plans of his own.
The pair are both unlikely sorts of immigrants to North America, and at the same time, their predicaments encapsulate the newcomer's experience in America: fresh off the boat, each with no past and every possibility lying before them. The Jinni, Ahmad, finds work with Arbeely, while the Golem, Chava, is saved by Rabbi Avram Meyer, who recognizes what she is. The two begin to make their own lives in the city, working to reconcile their supernatural natures with their new lives. As they do so, their supernatural abilities attract the company of others, who move to take advantage of them.
Wecker paints a vivid portrait of their lives, weaving in stories from a fascinating cast of characters: Mahmoud Saleh, a former doctor sickened with a demon, Maryam Faddoul, owner of a coffee shop, Fadwa al-Hadid, a Bedouin girl from Ahmad's distant past, and others. As she does so, we're privy to the entire face of 1899 New York City, from its wealthiest inhabitants to the newcomers. By exploring their backstories, Wecker turns what would be an otherwise straightforward fantasy adventure into a narrative with a great amount of deliberate depth to it. This isn't a quick read: we're forced to take our time as we move from character to character, and the novel unfolds wonderfully.
We spend some serious time with the characters, and in that time, Wecker gets to explore some interesting things. Supernatural individuals each, Chava and Ahmad have their own, deep character flaws that help to drive their respective journeys. Chava is built to obey her master, unconditionally, and after Rotfeld's death early in the novel, she continually struggles with blocking out the desires and impulses of those around her. At times, she slips up, stealing food and even becoming violent. Ahmad, on the other hand, is the epitome of independence: he struggles with working around others, often slipping out on his own and acting impulsively or arrogantly with those around him.
This unlikely pair eventually meet, and it's clear that their connection and relationship runs deep, eventually driving the story's entire narrative to a quick and climatic conclusion. Wecker's characters are flawed outside of their own spheres: Ahmad in the desert and Chava with her master. However, it's the driving motivation behind this story that helps each to make new lives for themselves, one that has helped to populate this country in the first place: America as the land of opportunity. Unwilling as they are, Chava and Ahmad find themselves breaking away from their natures and working to join the new developing culture around them. They each have their own marked changes as they move forward: the Golem becomes Chava, who largely overcomes her obedient nature, while the Jinni becomes Ahmad and learns that reliance on those around them isn't a bad thing.
The Golem and the Jinni is a powerful, vivid novel that pulls religion, folklore and magic into a fascinating point in American history. Wecker's style of fantasy reminded me of Neil Gaiman's novels, touching on a deeper cultural identity and presenting a story that quintessentially looks for the roots of what it means to be 'American'. The answer is deep in our roots: from the hundreds of newcomers that came to our shores looking for a new beginning. For her own beginning, Wecker is off to a fantastic start.