(Note: Hi! I’m John. Not Kristen. Sorry. I used to contribute to this site a while ago, but then grad school happened. And then grad school happened again. Now they’ve run out of degrees to give me, so I’m back to having some time to write here! It probably won’t be very often, but I’ll pop in from time to time.)
The Golem and the Jinni is a melting pot-era urban fantasy released in 2013 and Helene Wecker’s debut novel, which makes it all the more remarkable that it was nominated for this year’s best novel Nebula as well as many other honors. I would describe it as a gentle story, well-crafted and familiar, and in this case marvelously performed by George Guidall on audiobook.
The Golem Chava’s first vision of the world was from the inside of a crate, deep in the hold of an ocean liner steaming toward America. Her master, gravely ill, had woken her well before they and the rest of the ship full of immigrants were to make land in New York City. By the time the ship arrived Chava was alone, masterless, and without any experience of the world or idea what to do with herself; she only knew the one thing her master had told her, that nobody could ever learn she was a golem. Though she looked human she could not act human and was quickly identified by a New York rabbi who–presented with the choice of destroying a dangerous creature or saving an innocent mind–decided to teach her how to live.
The Jinni Ahmad also arrived in New York City at around the same time, though his history went back far further than Chava’s. Trapped in an anonymous lamp for a thousand years, he was accidentally released by a tinsmith who thought he was just patching an old heirloom. Though Ahmad was freed from the lamp he was shocked to find he was not truly freed: he remained bound in human form by an artifact and a wizard of whom he had no memory. Like Chava, Ahmad had to be taken in by the tinsmith and taught the ways of the world he hadn’t seen for centuries.
The Golem and the Jinni is a well-crafted tale that has earned the accolades that have been lauded upon it over the last year. I do mean crafted, too; the writing is beautiful and incredibly appropriate for the story being told. The writing style adds to the level of immersion in both the turn of the century (er, last century) setting and the mythological nature of urban fantasy. It is a story that is meant to be comfortable, and it would not have worked nearly so well without Wecker’s excellently polished language.
Since I listened to the audio book I also had the privilege of listening to George Guidall read Wecker’s words. Here again, the performance was so good and so fitting to the content of the story that it made the entire experience of the book better. I don’t listen to that many audio books, but some of the ones I have heard have been dragged down by a poor reading that masked the quality of the story itself. If anything, the opposite was true in this case. Guidall’s reading was so masterful that I keep wondering if my impression of Wecker’s writing has been artificially boosted by his voice and that maybe I’d think it less well crafted if I’d read it on the page. Either way, the presentation of the story as I heard it was great, and one of the strongest parts of the book.
I’d say that the story itself was somewhat less developed than the presentation, though. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing wrong with it, but it was what I assume it was meant to be: comfortable, familiar, and non-threatening. Those are all valid choices that resulted in a good book, and not every book needs to set out to deconstruct the genre, but I prefer books that have a bit more of an edge to them. In the same way that many books that are marketed as young adult feel like they are aimed at or best appreciated by more mature readers, this book felt like an adult novel in its themes and references but was wrapped in language and narrative that seemed like they’d be better appreciated by readers who were less familiar with the genre. It just wasn’t narratively challenging in the way that I, as someone who knows the tropes and has been bathed in fantasy and myth for most of my life, might have preferred.
This might have bothered me less if I had seen less opportunity to push at those edges. For instance, I can see Wecker playing at the edges of some interesting thoughts about gender roles at the turn of the century. The female golem, designed from the ground up to be a good wife (read: servant), who has to figure out how to live for herself with nobody to serve; the male jinni, captured and chafing for freedom but lacking compassion or a sense of responsibility; the supporting characters who all come across as well pegged into their respective spots in society–all of them are archetypical characters who walk through the stories you’d expect them to walk through over the course of the book. They learn the things you’d expect them to learn, both about themselves and about the world, and then wrap things up in time to get home for supper. Their need to blend and remain hidden comes with the requisite rebellion against the roles that have been chosen for them. All of this absolutely fits the time, place, and immigrant experience that forms the core of the book, but I can’t help but feel like there was a missed opportunity to go against the grain and use the symmetries Wecker creates between the golem’s and jinni’s tales to tell a tale that would stick with readers for a long time. As is, while it was pleasant to listen to, I’m not sure that The Golem and the Jinni will stay in my thoughts for all that long.
Again, though, that is not to say it is not a good novel or that it is not worth reading. Any disappointment comes from comparing the novel as written to the novel I imagine could have been. I’d still recommend The Golem and the Jinni as a tender tale to read and an even better one to listen to. Since it was her first book, I’m interested to see where Wecker goes from here and if she brings the level of immersion and craft demonstrated in The Golem and the Jinni to a deeper world in the future.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my review copy: Purchased the audio book