Fantasy fiction and magical realism are full of supernatural creatures: vampires, werewolves, elves, wizards, aliens, and zombies. Non-human and super-human creatures offer a way for an author to explore the joys, potholes, perils, and difficulties of existing outside the norm.

If you're even the least little bit tired of vamps and werewolves, go to the bookstore and get a copy of "The Golem and the Jinni." The story unfolds in the immigrant-packed streets and tenements of New York City in the 1890s. Most of the action takes place in the eastern European Jewish neighborhood and the lesser known "little Syria" neighborhood. Two unexpected immigrants land in this melting pot – a golem and a jinni. Neither creature is entirely sure of its origins. Both have to struggle to adapt and survive in an environment packed with humans struggling to adapt and survive. Both creatures are bound to human masters, but these masters are absent. It's up to each creature to find a place to live and a job. This requires interacting with people while keeping their essential natures under wraps.

The premise of Wecker's story is predicated on bizarre twists and turns. Chava is a female golem that was made to be a good wife. Ahmad is a jinni with no recollection of how he was trapped in a brass flask from which he was accidentally released. Their inevitable meeting draws together strands of a bigger picture of which neither is aware.

Through the rocky beginning of their friendship, Chava and Ahmad learn more about their own strengths, weaknesses, and risk factors. Neither can avoid being drawn into society. Their non-human traits present an odd blend of assets and stumbling blocks. Chava is a creature of earth, and Ahmad is a creature of fire. In spite of their contrasting natures, each is the only confidante the other can talk to openly about daily concerns and bigger issues of existence.

The wizards who have created and bound the golem and jinni provoke questions that are highly pertinent in the modern world. What are the consequences of human invention and creation? What are good and bad uses of power? How does a power-hungry individual impact individuals and society at large? Is power-seeking inherently dangerous, or can it be benign or even used to effect improvements that benefit society? Who decides what's good and acceptable?

The secondary human characters run the gamut of immigrant society – adults, elderly and children, capable workers, enterpreneurs, and oddballs, leaders and followers, traditionalists and intrepid non-conformists. Wecker does a fine job of weaving her characters into a well-researched historical setting. Incidents from the past are judiciously interspersed with the story's present so the narrative unfolds at a smooth pace.

"The Golem and the Jinni" seamlessly melds techniques of the historical novel with magical realism. The writing is sharp and entertaining. It's a stand-alone book for readers who don't want to be lured into yet another series. Wecker juxtaposes contrasting cultures, the rigors of adaptation, conflicts of belief, and large moral and ethical questions without belaboring any of these elements – which is itself a remarkable literary achievement.

It took Helene Wecker seven years to write her first novel. It was well worth the effort. Enthusiastically recommended!

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Helene Wecker
Harper Perennial, 2013
pp 485, $15.99




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