Friday, 17 January 2014
#CBR6 Book 1: "The Golem and the Jinni" by Helene Wecker
Rating: 5 stars
What a lovely way to start my new reading year. First of all, I want to thank Jen K for this lovely book. She gave it to me as part of the Cannonball Read gift exchange, and as I was fairly sure I wasn't going to be able to do it justice when I was hurrying through books at the end of December to finish my triple Cannonball, I decided that it would be my first book of 2014. As it turns out, due to me getting ill over the Christmas holidays, I was stuck with huge amounts of correction work for the first week and a half of January, and only really able to read on the bus to and from work and in the occasional stolen moment before I passed out exhausted in bed each night. I am given to understand that this may be all the reading, or even more than, the average person does. Well, to me, it's pretty much akin to torture. Suffice to say, the fact that the book was so engrossing made this experience extra frustrating for me. But what is this delightful book about, you ask?
Chava is the titular golem, a woman made of clay supposed to be bound to one master, created by a disgraced and sinister rabbi in Poland. Her master, the man who commissioned her, brings her to life on the sea voyage to America, and dies very shortly after. Hence Chava no longer has one person's commands to obey and begins hearing the thoughts and wishes of all those around her. She arrives alone in New York in 1899, and luckily a kindly rabbi recognises her for what she is and takes her in, determined to teach her to fit in, so she doesn't lose control and use her inhuman strength to harm or kill anyone. He helps her get a job in a bakery, and coaches her to hide her true nature.
Ahmad is the jinni, or djinn. Trapped for centuries in a copper oil flask by a Bedouin wizard, he wakes up on the floor of a tinsmith's shop, with no memory of how he ended up so far away from the Syrian deserts he came from. Arbeely, the young tinsmith is rather shocked to discover that the childhood tales of djinn he was told are apparently true, and does what he can to help Ahmad (a name Arbeely gives him, djinns don't have human names) settle in amongst the residents of little Syria in lower Manhattan. Ahmad may be free of the lamp, but he still has an unbreakable iron cuff around his wrist, forcing him to stay in human shape. He needs to discover how he was trapped in the lamp in the first place, and seeks to find the means to fully free himself.
The book contains a number of interlinked stories, those of Chava and Ahmad are only two of them. There is the story of rabbi Meyer, who takes Chava under his wing and his estrangement from his nephew, Michael. There is the story of the Jewish magician, the disgraced rabbi Schaalman, Chava's creator, as we in flashbacks discover how he came to be the bitter and twisted man who Chava's master approached to have a wife made. There is the story of Mahmoud Saleh, a downtrodden ice cream seller in little Syria, who can't look anyone in the eye, and once used to be a successful doctor back in Syria, the story of socialite Sophia Winston, who catches Ahmad's eye in the park, as well as a number of other characters and stories. In a lot of cases with stories like this, I tend to get bored when the focus shifts away from characters I love, and I am tempted to just skim and skip ahead to get past the sections concerning characters I'm not all that interested in. Wecker writes so compellingly that I was never tempted to do that. I was fascinated with each and every one of the story strands, and curious as to how they would all come together in the end.
Historical fiction featuring fantastical elements from various cultures, the book is pretty much Malin catnip. I'm so very glad I was given this as a gift, otherwise it may have got lost among the hundreds of other books on my TBR list that I hear about, find a bit intriguing and decide to read at some future date. It's a lush and intricate and beautifully told book, with the friendship between the Golem and the Jinni at the centre of it, both incredibly lonely and mythical creatures, delighted to find someone else truly unusual to confide in. I would pretty much recommend this to anyone, and will be buying it as presents for all my friends once it's out in paperback.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.