Helene Wecker’s 2013 title is a methodical, unhurried dive into a blend of novel magic systems, historical novel, and cultural commentary. Her story follows two mythical beings. The first is a golem, Chava, created in old-world Poland by a rabbi for a paying customer who wants a bespoke wife. But, when the customer tries to bring her across the ocean to America, he dies at sea, leaving Chava alone, masterless, and without direction.
The second is a jinni, Ahmad, who once soared through the skies above the Syrian desert long, long ago. But, hubris led him to tangle with a dark sorcerer, and he ended up in a copper flask in a New York repair shop. When the repairman tries to work on the lamp, he releases Ahmad. Jinn are born of fire, so Ahmad is stuck on this side of the Atlantic, alone and without direction.
There were a lot of things about this novel I liked. It started with a bang. From the first page I was curious about everything. It’s not often that we get to see fantasy authors explore a distorted type of Kabbalistic magic system where rabbis have books containing dark magic they prefer to hide from their peers and colleagues.
The book also promises some deep intellectual questions that are relevant today. In some respects, Chava’s development as a golem is a commentary on artificial intelligence, ruminating over the age-old question of when a soul enters a body. Ahmad’s inability to return to a more glorious version of himself is the type of exploration a lot of adults still pining over college or high school glory days should embark on.
But, in spite of all the cool pieces at play here, when I turned the last page, I couldn’t help but feel like I missed something. In retrospect, there are three things I wished would have happened in The Golem and the Jinni.
I wish the magic system felt more balanced
The limitations built into the golem and the jinni made for some very interesting problems. Wecker did a great job respecting these limitations, too. The golem, for example, doesn’t sleep and doesn’t need to eat, which makes things awkward for her. The jinni can’t take a lot of water, and when it rains in New York, he has problems. These difficulties kept me turning pages.
But, the greater magic system, and the powers of the evil Yehudah Schaalman seem practically limitless and as readers, we don’t have much to tether him down. As a result, as he amps up his evil plans, I was left wondering what the bad guy couldn’t do, and what the magic system couldn’t accomplish. In fact, it feels like the villain fits into the limited magical structure at the beginning of the book, but by the end of it, can accomplish significant feats of magic that could have made his life a lot easier earlier on.
It’s possible that this was intentional, but if so, I missed a little bit of the connective tissue that would have helped explain why his powers increased.
I wish the pacing had been a little more brisk
The novel took its time. It was a leisurely narrative. There were stretches I felt I had to get through to get to the good stuff.
Ironically, after I finished the book, and reflected back on the plot, the pacing didn’t feel as slow as when I was reading. I call this the “carve a path” syndrome, where time slows down whenever you’re unsure of where you’re going. Once the pieces all came together, I recognized how plot points fit in. I wonder if Wecker had been able to incorporate more points along the route to help readers orient themselves to the plot if that may have helped pacing.
As it is, the book features several point of view characters and a lot of flashbacks, so you get a little bit of that feeling like “I’ve read 100 pages and I have no idea what this book is about.”
I wish the narrative had better ties to the ending
Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anything here for you future readers.
I will say that I felt the ending happened abruptly, though. Considering the pacing I mentioned above, the dominoes all fell at once, and quite quickly. As a result, the book feels a little divided. At the beginning, it grabs you by the collar and says this is going to be interesting. In the middle, we get a leisurely exploration of many different characters’ lives and histories. In the end, the author hits the gas big time