Tuesday, June 11, 2013

'The Golem and the Jinni'

Monsters surround us everywhere, in every life, in every era.  We have the typical Hollywood monsters.  We have classical monsters from literature.  We have religious monsters.

But the biggest, scariest monster isn't found in a lagoon, or in a laboratory, or even under a bed. Pick up a newspaper and you'll find it there; usually on the front page.  Female or male.  It all comes down to humankind.

Helene Wecker has presented to us her much-celebrated debut novel, 'The Golem and the Jinni', a story that celebrates freedom and desire, shackles and tyranny.  It is a tale of two creatures (one a golem, a clay figure from Jewish mythology which is brought to life, and the other a jinni, a spirit from Islamic mythology), who, through their desire to find love and a chance at a 'real' life, come together to defeat the real monster who  is bent on gaining mastery over them in order to destroy them.

It is 1899 New York, and a mysterious woman lands in the city, alone and bereft.  A local rabbi takes pity on her and offers her his home and help.  But when he discovers what she really is, he is torn between destroying her, or allowing her to live a life of peace and fulfillment.  At around the same time, in a Syrian neighborhood, another creature is accidentally released from an ancient copper flask, and the only person who knows who he is is his future business partner, a tinsmith.  Masking their true natures, both creatures try their best to live in a strange, new world.

The golem and the jinni soon meet, and a tenuous friendship is forged.  But after a terrifying incident takes place, both creatures retreat to their separate worlds.  When a dangerous adversary threatens their very existence, golem and jinni must join forces and make a fateful decision.

As much as I loved the creatures which take center stage in this fantastic story, it is the many other characters who kept me turning the pages.  So vividly realized, so authentic; I almost believed that each and every one of them really existed.  From Rabbi Meyer, who first took the golem under his wing, and Maryam, the coffeeshop owner who could charm the gold filling out of a tooth, to Michael, Rabbi Meyer's nephew, a man on a mission to help newly-arrived Jewish immigrants.  And even Joseph Schall, a mysterious man who hides his true intentions all too well.  Although it took time for the story to gain momentum, the climactic scene near the end was worth my patience.

Reading 'The Golem and the Jinni' brought to mind Pete Hamill's wonderful novel, 'Snow in August', a story of a boy, a rabbi, and the golem who saved them both.  His novel is a good accompaniment to Ms. Wecker's story.

So there is still magic everywhere.  There is also the desire for passion, freedom, and acceptance.  All creatures, magical and otherwise, deserve it all.

But beware the monsters, for they, too, are everywhere.

They just hide themselves better.

'The Golem and the Jinni', published by HarperCollins, is available everywhere.  Support your local library and independent bookstore!

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