Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

I have mixed feelings about this book. A part of me really liked it, another part of me is kind of disappointed. But let's keep things orderly. 
The main characters are Chava, a golem, and Ahamd, a Jinni. 
Chava is probably the first golem ever to have been created to be a wife. She was commissioned by a man who didn't have much luck with the flesh-and-blood ladies, and so thought that a bride made of clay, whose willpower is bound to his (in other words, she'll gladly do everything he wants) would be a suitable second best option. Yeah, he's a huge creep, but fortunately he dies mere hours after waking his golem, leaving her masterless in a boat bound for New York City.
Being masterless means Chava is almost overcome with the desires of everybody around her, which would be bad enough even if she wasn't in a huge metropolis. She's lucky, though, because she's found by a kind, elderly rabbi who takes her under his wing and teaches her how to pass off as human.
Chava is basically a ticking time bomb, because golems are prone to thoughtless violence, and when they've had a taste of it they'll go on spreading death until they are destroyed. 
Ahmad, on the other hand, is a centuries-old jinni, who used to live in a glass palace in the desert and was fascinated by humans, until he was captured by a sorcerer and put into a flask. He slept for a thousand years, until he was accidentally awoken by a tinsmith in a small shop in Little Syria. 
Like Chava, he passes himself off as human. Unlike Chava, his nature isn't that dangerous, and he believes firmly in following his urges and pursuing his pleasure, even in spite of caution. 
Chava and Ahmad are both complicated and well-developped characters. It was very easy to see why they acted the way they did and I really liked their love story. It was slow build, and most of their relationship was spent trying to find a middle ground between their very different approaches at life, while developing a tentative friendship.
I liked Chava more than I did Ahmad. He's not less interesting that she is, but while her fault is that she's too careful, he's very, very careless and through his actions he endangers not only himself, but also other people.  
For example, he takes up with Sophia Winston, a rich heiress. Arbeerly, the tinsmith, who under no obligation has hid the jinni and given him a job, begs Ahmad to leave her alone, because if her parents find out, the whole of Little Syria might get some serious trouble. Of course the jinni doesn't listen to him and keeps seeing her. 
Not that Chava doesn't hurt people, in particular she does one incredibly shitty thing to a pretty decent guy, but her motivations for doing it are a lot less flimsy than Ahmad's "My own pleasure is the only thing that matters and I don't care how many people I hurt because of my inability to keep it in my pants". 
The side characters are well fleshed-out as well. I have a soft spot for Ice-cream Saleh in particular, he was a really interesting character and I wish he had had more page time and a bigger story arc. He does have an important part to play, but I would have liked for him and the jinni to become friends, for reasons I won't disclose because they would be spoilery.  
One of the main problems I had with "The golem and the jinni"is the way everybody gets a backstory, explained through a long flashback, which is introduced into the story with no finesse whatsoever. The worst one was the jinni's, which is told in several parts. Since Ahmad doesn't remember anything from the last few months before being imprisoned, I thought that it was him remembering what had happened in chunks, but then we got the POV of a beduin girl from the caravan he had been following and in the end it turned out that it wasn't the jinni's memories we were reading. And Wecker didn't use a an omniscient narrator, either. The novel was told through multiple POVs, and the other characters' flashbacks were all told through their POV, so I really can't make sense of the way the jinni's backstory was delivered. 
The other problem I had with the novel was that I couldn't really see what themes the author was going for: It felt like various ideas were picked up then discarded, without being followed through (for example, the discussion on the subject of religion). The one point the author did make was tied to the use of magic, but it felt kind of rushed and really only took up about a paragraph near the end of the novel, with nothing leading up to it, so I wouldn't say it's a theme. 
All in all, I did enjoy reading this book and it kept me engrossed, but I can't help but feel as though this novel could have been so much more, if only it had been edited for a little while longer and the rough edges had been smoothed out. 
For what this novel is, it's good, but it's not excellent and it could have been excellent and it drives me mad that it wasn't. The potential was there, it just wasn't exploited fully. 
I do think it's worth a read, though, so if you're in the mood for some historical magical realism fiction that isn't set in the victorian era, I'd give it a try. 

1 comment:

  1. Ahh I really loved this book when I read it a couple of months ago. I think what got me was that it was historical fiction, but then also fantasy, and that it was about two religions coming together. I agree with you though that it could've definitely been better though.