I acquired this book right after I finished Alif the Unseen, my first post on this blog. I wanted to jump in, but was a bit worried from the title that the book would have assertive religious or political agendas, or both. It doesn’t and am so glad I waited no longer.
This 800-page page turner is not fancy literary fiction, but one of those great, old-fashioned stories you can disappear into for a few days. I closed the book most impressed by its plotting. The story moved (in my mind) like a spiral. We returned to characters or back story as if moving around and up a strand of DNA, until it all came together in the end. Each little piece of the story, each character, was important and placed in just the right spot to move it to resolution.
The novel is an interesting blend of the historical and the fantastic. Set mainly in the immigrant communities of Little Syria and the Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of NYC in the early days of the 20th century, the novel tells the story of the arrival and assimilation of two unusual inhabitants. The Golem, a woman made of clay and magically brought to life by a dark magic practitioner, and the Jinni, a mercurial creature made of fire but shackled firmly to human form by an evil wizard, must both come to terms with their true natures and fit into human society–until they can figure out how to escape it. They arrived in NYC by different routes, but live vaguely parallel existences trying to hide/survive/assimilate in human society until their paths cross one day. They both quickly realize the other is not human, and share their secrets. It forges a strange, and surprisingly contrary friendship and is the key to their understanding of themselves and how each was created and bound.
There are themes running through the novel about the nature of free will and understanding one’s own nature–the essence of being. Even though the Golem and the Jinni acquire human names in their communities, the narrator always refers to them as the Golem and the Jinni. This was an important and clever decision. It was sometimes easy to forget, especially for me with the Golem, that their human characteristics and personae merely mask and co-exist with more essential elemental natures. They are earth and fire and as such, powerful and primal. And ultimately, they are human creations, so they embody both what fascinates us with the primal and our ability to reflect philosophically on it.
Helene Wecker has set the bar very high for herself indeed with this book. I am really looking forward to seeing what she does next. As always when I finish this type of novel, I long to be immersed again in this sort of escapist tale. Any suggestions where I might go next? The end of the book lists several that inspired Wecker–Alif the Unseen, American Gods, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Call It Sleep. I’ve read Alif and American Gods, and gave up on both Jonathan Strange and Kavalier & Clay. Should I try again? Other ideas?
HarperCollins Publisher 2013