Once Upon a Time: The Golem and the Jinni

Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni (2013)


The Golem and the Jinni has an interesting origin story: author Helene Wecker was trying to write fiction dealing with her own Jewish heritage and that of her husband, who is of Arab descent, and finding it dead in the water. A friend said, “Helene, why are you writing like this?” She realized that she wasn’t activating her “geek” side that loved science fiction and fantasy. When she made her main characters a golem (in Jewish legend, inanimate matter mystically brought to life in the semblance of a human being) and a jinni (a fiery spirit from Arab folklore), the story took off.

And to our benefit, for this is a delightfully entertaining and thought-provoking book, embracing the cultural ferment of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century from a wholly original point of view. The golem and the jinni are immigrants: one arrives on a boat bereft of the master who has just awakened her and then suddenly died, while the other is accidentally set free from centuries of imprisonment by a tinsmith who tries to repair a flask from the old country. They must negotiate unexpected lives in this new, bewildering place, trying to find a way to survive and be themselves in a world that doesn’t even admit that they can exist. Meanwhile, the forces that would rob them again of their newfound self-determination are closing in.

Though the two characters are very different — from the very elements of their being, earth and fire, to their moral outlook on the world — how they draw near to one another and form a kind of sympathetic alliance in their strange quest is a story both touching and thrilling. This is not a lead-footed allegory of the immigrant experience, but an imaginative leap into the questions that make fiction both fun and meaningful. Can free will be manufactured, or earned? Is love a phenomenon of feeling, or of action? What does one do if one literally cannot sleep? Through a wide array of characters and incidents, brought into play with impressive skill for a first-time novelist, Wecker gives the ring of truth to her fantastic story.

I’m counting The Golem and the Jinni for the “Folklore” category in the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.