After not updating my blog for over a year, I have returned with a review on Helene Wecker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Djinni. The book was originally released by HarperCollins in 2013. While conducting my research for this review, I also discovered that there is a sequel in the making.
Initially set to be released in 2018, Wecker recently announced in a tweet that the release date of The Iron Season is being postponed to 2021. This is due to a re-write – so if by chance you come across this review, Helene, I wish you all the best and hope it is going well!
The Golem and the Djinni is described on Wecker’s official website as “an immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology”. The plot kicks off with the creation of the Golem, a figure from Jewish folklore. She is created by a corrupt kabbalist named Yehuda Schaalman after Rotfeld, a wealthy but not so eligible bachelor, approaches him for a wife.
After giving away almost his entire fortune to pay for (*don’t say a clay fleshlight*) her creation, Rotfeld departs from his home town of Konin (a city in central Poland) to start a new life over in the United States. Unfortunately, he does not survive the journey and swiftly perishes during the voyage due to a burst appendix. But not before he animates his clay… bride.
The Golem struggles to adapt to her surroundings following her master’s death. People assume that she is Rotfeld’s human wife, so she has to adopt the identity of a new widow who has emigrated from a country she has never known. Her masterless state has also left her attuned to the desires of those around and she must force herself not to respond to them or else she will reveal her true nature. Not long after arriving in New York, a rabbi discovers her and takes her in. He names her Chava, after the Hebrew word chai, which means ‘alive’.
While the rabbi is teaching the Golem how to pass as human amongst the diverse neighbourhoods of New York, a tinsmith in Little Syria gets a big shock when he discovers that the antique flask he is fixing contains a Djinni. As with Chava and the rabbi, Arbeely and the Djinni – who he names later Ahmad – strike up a rocky friendship which focuses on hiding Ahmad’s true identity from their neighbours.
As you can probably tell from the lengthy synopsis written above, this is a long book. My synopsis only covers the first few hundred pages so as to minimise spoilers for those who are yet to read it. There will, however, be some minor spoilers throughout this review as without them it would be a rather vapid blog post.
With the holidays approaching, I wanted to find myself the perfect winter read – the kind of book that you can spend hours with underneath a dozen blankets and a steady supply of hot chocolate. Totalling over 600 pages and set against the backdrop of the Great Blizzard of 1899, this book definitely fulfilled that need. Nevertheless, not all readers appreciated its bulk.
A review by the Washington Post’s Chris Bohjalian, which praises Wecker on the level of research that went into the making of her debut, criticises the novel for being “way too long”. To that, I say, “what’s the rush, Chris? Look at the weather outside. It’s cold as f*ck, Chris. It’s the perfect time to grab the chunkiest book on your shelf and disappear from the world!”
For those of you who have not been intimidated or put off by its length, I highly recommend this book to lovers of historical fantasy. Most of the narrative takes place at the turn of the twentieth century in New York. Wecker chose to set her story during a population boom, which was largely driven by European immigration to the United States. In addition to dreams of a better life (commonly referred to as the American Dream ethos) many European Jews fled to America during this period to escape the anti-Semitic laws and mob violence of the Russian Empire. Similarly, Little Syria, the neighbourhood which the Djinni occupies, housed many immigrants who left their homeland to evade conscription within the Ottoman Empire’s imperial army.
Exploring the experience of immigrants entering a strange, new land is a major theme within this novel. This strangeness is further heightened by the novel’s incorporation of mythological creatures within the real-world setting, who form most of the narrative’s perspective. By this, I am not just referring to the juxtaposition of the ‘real’ and the ‘fantastical’, but also the situation these characters find themselves. When her master dies, the Golem is arguably a newborn in a grown woman’s body. She is not simply adapting to an unfamiliar culture, but has to deal with the concept of being alive. The Djinni has been trapped in a flask for thousands of years and, when he is finally released, finds himself on the other side of the world.
The novel also delves into the impoverished conditions faced by many immigrants after entering the country. This is powerfully captured by the buildings they occupy: the tenements, which Wecker describes on her website as “dark, squalid, and neglected by their absentee landlords”. As if it to drive this point even further, Wecker introduces the character of Sophia Winston, and we get a glimpse into her life as a member of an upper-class and white New York family.
In conclusion, this novel has meandering flow to it – not dissimilar from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is mentioned on the blurb. The titular characters do not meet until quite a way into the novel (more than 200 pages in) – when I was reading, it got to a point where I was starting to wonder if their paths would ever cross. The pace of narrative only really picks up once the Djinni’s complete backstory is revealed, making it one of those books which can only be enjoyed if you can appreciate a plot that takes its time unfolding. It also helps if you don’t cringe at melodrama as this book can be quite soap opera-y at times.
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