Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
As the 1890s draw to an end, New York City, the entry point of so many immigrants, becomes home to two unique travelers: a golem and a jinni. Left masterless and adrift the golem, who can pass for human, is rescued by an elderly rabbi who names her Chava and works to find a place for her in the Jewish community. Accidentally freed from centuries of imprisonment in a copper bottle, the jinni finds himself trapped in a human form and cannot remember how or why he’s come to this place. The tinsmith who freed him names him Ahmad and convinces him to work as his apprentice in the Syrian expatriate community until they can find a way to free him. Slowly, Chava and Ahmad try to find their place in this new world, eventually discovering each other’s existence, but they are unaware a malignant entity is on its way across the Atlantic, searching for them both.
Everything’s Good in America
While the focus of the novel is clearly Chava and Ahmad, a number of secondary characters come into play, each with their own interesting backstory and motivation, so most of the characters are developed and seem believable. It is an important task to keep the setting grounded in reality when the two central characters are mythical, and it makes their sense of alienation and secrecy that much more sympathetic. Chava fears being discovered and destroyed at virtually any moment, while Ahmad chafes at being confined to one form without the full range of his wondrous abilities and experiences. As such, the secondary human characters make the setting seem real to the reader if for no other reason than their own concerns and experiences are more immediate and human in scope. Because of its tighter focus and smaller cast, in many ways, this novel is more successful than Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which also bring Old World mythic figures to North America. Setting the story in a prior century will also help some readers suspend their disbelief because fantastic creatures and events often seem more likely in earlier times.
A particularly interesting feature of the novel is the structure of the story. The reader fears for the two central characters, but in opposite directions. Chava’s fears are all future-oriented: will her nature be discovered, will she lose control and become a danger to everyone around her, will she be enslaved, will she be destroyed, and so on. Ahmad, conversely, has all his concerns rooted in the past: how did he become ensnared and put in that copper flask, what has he done that he cannot remember, how can he find his old master so he can be free, etc. Essentially, Helene Wecker builds anticipation in two directions simultaneously, even if at a slow pace.
These techniques, however, sometimes work as a double-edged sword. The time it takes to establish all the characters dominates the first half of the novel where, after the appearance of these creatures, there is little in the way of plot. The story picks up steam again in the middle when the golem and jinni actually cross paths, which might be a significant amount of time to have a reader wait. Even then, the novel is slow at building tension and dread, which seems odd seeing as how Chava is often so fearful and Ahmad so willing to be reckless.
There is also the nature of the story itself. Without the golem and jinni, the story is essentially the same turn-of-the-century immigrant story that has been traveled over and over again. A few subtle changes and this novel could easily be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather or Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (also containing a golem). Thankfully, Wecker is confident enough in her craft and her central characters to make them the focus and see the experience through their eyes. Nonetheless, the New York setting sometimes seems confining, and while this might help mimic the jinni’s sense of continued imprisonment, it can also wear thin on the patience of the audience.
Earth and Fire
Overall, Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni makes for a good experience with a solid collection of characters, many moments of deep inquiry, and, in the last quarter of the book, a series of tense and powerful confrontations that draw most of the plot threads together with the same confidence and skill displayed by Classic authors like Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Brontë. This is a strong debut novel that showcases Wecker’s talent.
Wecker, Helene. The Golem and the Jinni. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.
© 2013 Seth Tomko