31 Dec 2014

A modern folktale: Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Djinni

 The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

Release Date: April 2013
Publisher: Blue Door
Pages: 484
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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How do I even begin to describe The Golem and the Djinni? I've been sitting in front of my computer for the last half an hour, trying to put into words the sense of wonder this book gave me. It is one of those books that you absolutely loathe to put down, and when you do, you spend the entire time thinking about it. The novel is well-written and self assured, so much so that it's genuinely hard to believe that The Golem and the Djinni is Wecker's debut novel. It is a wonderful blend of fantasy and historical fiction, centred around immigrant experiences & identity and questioning what it means to be human.

The Golem is a creature made from clay by a corrupt Kabbalist near Danzig, at the request of Otto Rotfeld, a selfish, unsuccessful young man. Instead of wanting to create the violent creatures of Jewish folklore, Rotfeld wanted a mate - a woman who was inquisitive, intelligent and - of course! - a sense of propriety. Despite instructions not to bring his Golem to life while travelling on a ship to New York, Rotfeld brings her to life, only to die from a burst appendix hours later. Newborn and without a master, the Golem is faced with the unenviable task of ignoring the wants of all the people around her. A retired rabbi realises who - or rather, what the Golem really is - and takes her in.

 Not too far away in Little Syria, a tinsmith named Arbeely accidentally releases a very handsome, incredibly arrogant Djinni from an old copper flask that he is trying to repair. Trapped in the shape of a young man, the Djinni must learn to live his life as a human. It is when these two creatures meet that the story really takes off, for these two characters are polar opposite. Where Chava wishes for nothing more to live her life as human - or as close to human as she can be, Ahmad wants nothing more than to take his true form as a djinni. Chava wants to satisfy the desires of those around her, whereas Ahmad only wants to satisfy his desires of the moment. My favourite part of this novel is how even though these characters are complete opposites, both make a number of concessions in order to meet the other half way, and how even as these characters grow, they are both very much aware of their limitations. In a lot of ways, their stories are emblematic of the immigrant experience - building a new life, changing in order to fit in, learning new ways. Changing your name (much to Ahmad's horror).

Wecker masterfully mixes Arab and Jewish mythology in order to create an entirely original tale, and even though I think that the story works best when the titular characters are together, their individual stories and struggles are interesting enough to keep you flipping through the pages. Even the background characters are three-dimensional, creating a cast of characters that all have an arc that runs until the book's finish. It is truly wonderful to read. 

 I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed The Golem and the Djinni. It will go down as one of my favourite reads of 2014, and Wecker has officially been put on my 'Authors to Watch' list.

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