The Golem and the Djinni, Helene Wecker

There are some books – most books probably – which I read, finish and review pretty much straight away. They are like those meals which are fine, tasty and enjoyable but which you move on from.

Some, however – stretching the metaphor perhaps to breaking point – I like to savour more, to digest, before turning to review it. And The Golem and the Djinni was one of those.

It creates a world of magic realism in which Wecker invokes the rich, hopeful, uncertain and insecure world of New York in the nineteenth century opening its arms to the cultures of the world. Two specific immigrant communities are conjured up: the Jewish quarter and Little Syria. There is a richness and humanity in these descriptions: men and women struggling to reconcile old traditions with a new way of life; younger generations breaking away from more traditional beliefs.

And into these two communities in modern America come two beings of distant times. One, the ancient bound Djinni – a creature of fire from the Syrian desert bound and trapped in a flask – and the other a golem, born of ancient powers aboard a ship bound for America only a handful of days before she arrives.

These two creatures are mirror images of each other: the Djinni is an ancient, shape-shifting, whimsical creature bound to a single form and rebelling against his confinement; the Golem is barely a few weeks old, forged to be a slave and obedient but set terrifyingly free by the death of the master to whom she was bound days after her awakening.

And I think that, in that mirroring, we see the crafted nature of this book: for a long book there are very few characters and each one revolves in his or her own circle, occasionally overlapping before the circles move on again. In addition to the two creatures, you only really have Arbeely, the tin smith who releases and takes in the Djinni; Rabbi Meyer who finds and takes in the golem and his nephew Michael Levy; Mahmoud Saleh from Little Syria; the American heiress Sophia Winston; and Anna Blumberg with whom the Golem works and who becomes her friend.

And Yehudah Schaalman, the Golem’s creator.

I think this is the character, Schaalman, with whom I was least satisfied with. He is the antagonist and provides the final chapters of the novel with a strong plot. But, without giving away spoilers, his involvement was a little too neatly tied up and he did at times come across as the most two dimensional character in a novel populated by more rounded characters. He was a great villain. But he never really became more than a villain for me.

And I’d have liked to have seen more of Sophia. As a rich girl trapped in an engagement, she crosses paths with the Djinni and – somewhat inevitably – they form a brief liaison. But she is given some of the simplest but most beautiful and heart-breaking prose in the book as she realises what is happening between her water-based body and the flame which the Djinni had raised inside it.

Amid the dark haze of heat and desperation, she felt something shift inside her. A tendril of fire shot up her spine—and then her mind was filled with a small frightened fluttering, a noise like a candle flame whipped by a breeze. At once she knew that there was something trapped inside her, tiny and half-formed, and that it was drowning in her body, even as it burned her. There was nothing that either of them could do.

There are obvious parallels between this and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: the detailed recreation of a specific time and place; its juxtaposition with the magical realm. That’s certainly all there but I prefer the comparison with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus as both that and The Golem and the Djinni eschew the wider nation building that Susanna Clarke’s novel luxuriates in in favour of a smaller and more intimate cast. All three are, however, among my favourite novels!

8 thoughts on “The Golem and the Djinni, Helene Wecker”

  1. […] There is a wonderful delight in the slow revelation of the mythical world around Vasya. Whilst her family are living in the mundane and (at least superficially) Christian world, there is something darker, deeper and more ancient thrilling through Vasilisa’s veins – something which we have not yet seen fully despite being on the second book in the trilogy – and she sees the creatures from the stories around her. The domovoi, a “A creature with eyes like coals hid in the oven”, guarding it and its life-giving heat; the rusalka, splashing in the rivers; the bannik in the bathhouse, the “little potbellied devil in there that grinned at them through the steam”; the vazila protecting  the horses in the stables; the dvorovoi at the gateways, the polevik in the fields, the “vodianoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees”. As an outsider to Russian and Slavic folklore – beyond Baba Yaga – there was a wealth here to learn. And, although Arden had provided a glossary, her writing was so clear and organic that I never felt the need to refer to it. We discover with her that this mythology is real, is not evil as taught by the Church – albeit capable of caprice and not necessarily human in its moral compass – but generally protective. And the scenes where she feeds the creatures with bread, milk and blood to strengthen them in their weakness is wonderful. The magic here and the evocative style reminded me strongly of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni. […]


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