A Beautifully-Told Fairytale of New York – A Review of The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

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Humanity is, in many ways, a migratory species, similar to birds or the enormous wildebeest herds that still roam the Serengeti – one of the most extraordinary wildlife phenomena in the world. Our ancestors moved around, following the resources they needed to survive, and it was only much later, when farming and animal husbandry were invented, that humanity began to stay put in one place for very long periods of time. Of course, not all of humanity settled down to till the soil and raise animals, continuing to live the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to this day (the San people in Africa, for example). There are also many that still remain nomadic while embracing some of the trappings of settled life (the Bedouin, for instance, or the Maasai).

But even for the majority of humanity that has chosen to put down roots in a more permanent manner, there is still that tendency to move – to migrate – and for the same fundamental reason: a better life. Every culture has its own take on the immigration story, though it hits home harder for some cultures than for others (like in my culture, where the immigration story has become mythologized). And finding these people is really no truly difficult task: just look at New York City, and one will find hundreds upon hundreds of immigration stories, both the tales of individual people and of whole groups of them, spanning not just space, but also time. New York has been the gateway of immigration into the United States since the 1800s, when great steamer ships from across the Atlantic carried boatloads of people looking for the “American Dream,” and each of those immigrants brought with them not just their own, individual stories, but the stories, traditions, and beliefs of their own culture. Each one was a microcosm of the world he or she left behind, trying to begin anew in a foreign land that, in many cases, did not, or could not, or would not understand her or his story and the story of her or his people.

It is during the late 1800s, in what is probably the most well-known and most-storied period of immigration through New York, that Helene Wecker sets The Golem and the Jinni, a beautiful fairytale of a story that brings a new take to the immigrant story, while incorporating some interesting philosophical and moral questions into the bargain, all while offering what has to be one of the best cast of characters I have ever encountered in a standalone novel.

The Golem and the Jinni begins with the eponymous golem lying in the hold of a steamship, in the year 1899. The ship is called the Baltika, and it is en-route to New York, where Otto Rotfeld, later revealed to be the master of the golem mentioned earlier, is determined to begin a new life, like so many of the people with him on the ship, and like so many of those who went before him. How Rotfeld came to become the master of a golem is explained, as well as what happens to them before reaching New York. After that first chapter, the story of the eponymous jinni is then told, set in the midst of the neighborhood of Little Syria in Lower Manhattan, and it is no less fascinating than the golem’s tale, despite the very obvious differences. And as Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the jinni) learn to find their way in this new and unusual world, they interact with an incredibly fascinating group of people from various backgrounds and with equally various personalities, each of whom will play a role in the greater, overarching story that is hinted at throughout the course of the novel, and which is revealed and comes to a head towards the end.

Any novel – any story, for that matter – must have a good set of characters in order to be enjoyable, and The Golem and the Jinni is one of those rare stories where almost every character is good – not in the moral definition of the word, but in the functional definition, meaning they make sense in the context of the story, come across as relatively realistic, and above all, are a pleasure to read about. Even better, Wecker takes the time to develop their stories: even characters like Maryam Faddoul, who in a lot of other novels would be no more than a face in the crowd – with a few lines, perhaps, but no more – get backstories of their own, explaining their place in the world of the novel and the potential role they may play as the plot progresses. And since this is a story about community – two communities, in fact – there are more than just a few supporting characters to read about. Some reviewers have found fault in this, claiming that it makes it hard to keep the characters straight, but I, for one, do not mind at all. I care more about the quality of the characterization than the quantity of characters, since it is easy to remember who is who if they are characterized well, and fortunately, Wecker does just that.

Of course, most of the characterization goes to the two protagonists, and they are beautifully written, especially since their personalities arise directly from their origins in an appropriate and believable way (mythological nature notwithstanding). Chava is depicted as cautious and practical, since that is precisely what her erstwhile husband, Rotfeld, asked she be, whereas Ahmad is charming and mercurial, as one might expect a creature of air and fire (though mostly fire) would be. However, while these are their basic natures and therefore almost all of their decisions are based on those core concepts, they still come off as extraordinarily human. Chava, for instance, does take risks of her own when she thinks they are acceptable, and Ahmad can be thoughtful when he thinks he ought to be. It helps, too, that the people who take care of them – humans all – affect them as well, gradually changing the way they interact with the world, but not too much that they are fundamentally changed – Chava remains Chava, and Ahmad is still Ahmad.

And just as the people around them – the Jewish community in Chava’s case, and the community of Little Syria in Ahmad’s – leave their mark on them, so too do they leave their mark on the people around them. Some characters are changed more profoundly than others, but in the end, no one (who is named, anyway) is left unchanged by the end of the story. That, I think, is one of the most beautiful aspects of this novel: people touch each other’s lives, and even the slightest contact can change the trajectory of an entire life.

Another thing I found absolutely beautiful about this novel is that, despite the trappings of urban fantasy, it is, at its core, a story about immigration, about traveling far from home to a strange land in order to begin anew. Chava and Ahmad are representative of this, and their attempt to find their place in this unfamiliar world is no different from what every immigrant goes through to this day. Despite their decidedly non-human nature, they both must struggle like every other immigrant to find a place in this strange new world, find a way to fit in without giving up who they feel they are. That Wecker can tell this story in a fairytale-esque manner without losing sight of the difficulties of the life of the immigrant is perhaps what really makes this book as good as I think it is.

As for the plot and narrative, that too is intriguing, in that it takes a meandering, intertwining path that weaves its way from Europe and the Middle East to Lower Manhattan and back again, depending on whose story is being told. Again, this is something that some reviewers have disliked about the novel, but I personally think it is one of the novel’s best aspects, and shows Wecker’s skill as a writer, that she can keep all these interwoven stories in enough order that the reader does not get them mixed up – and, more importantly, uses those stories to create characters with depth when they would otherwise not have it.

Overall, The Golem and the Jinni is a beautiful take on the immigrant story that one sees from time to time in the media and in literature: a story with some fairytale gloss over it but with enough of the grit and hardship showing through to remind the reader that, no matter how much like a fairytale the idea of the “American Dream” might be, it is a fairytale borne of blood, sweat, and many, many tears. The characters are exceptionally well-drawn, and are woven together in a plot that drifts, almost dream-like, from the present to the past and back again, from the city to the desert to the Polish countryside and back, all without losing sight of the main plot. And, like any good fairytale, it ends quite happily – though perhaps not in the way the reader will expect, but in a way that feels satisfying and appropriate to the events of the story and the characters involved. And that, I think, is the best part of all.

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