No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, June 20, 2014

2014/17: The Golem and the Djinni -- Helene Wecker

"Everyone else walks differently at night than during the day. Have you noticed?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “As though they’re fighting off sleep, or running away from it, even if they’re wide awake.”
“But not you,” he said. “You were lost, but you were walking as though the sun was high overhead.” [loc. 3320]

New York, 1899: a city that welcomes the huddled masses yearning to be free. Among the influx of immigrants are two exiles whose relationship with freedom is more complex than most.

The Djinni is a creature of fire and magic who has been imprisoned in a metal flask for the last millennium. Freed from the flask by a Syrian tinsmith -- though still bound in human form -- he adopts the name Ahmad and the profession of metal-worker: but this does not delight his mercurial spirit.

The Golem was created to be the perfect wife, but her husband died on the ship that was to bring them to their new life. Discovered by a kindly old Rabbi who suggests that she name herself Chava, she becomes a baker: this employment allows her to fulfil her primary function, which is to respond to the wishes of others.

Both pass for human, and both find partners: the Golem marries the Rabbi's idealistic nephew Michael, while the Djinni delights in seducing a young socialite who yearns for adventure. But the most important relationship each has is with the other. Neither needs to sleep, so they take long nocturnal walks together, debating theology and philosophy. The Djinni is tormented by his inability to recall the circumstances surrounding his capture, and by the magic that constrains him to his human form. The Golem is acutely aware of the danger she presents to others: she yearns for a master, finding freedom too terrifying a prospect.

Wecker presents a large cast of viewpoint characters, though the Golem and the Djinni remain the focus throughout. There's Saleh, a prosperous doctor in the old country until he encountered a very real case of possession, who's now a homeless ice-cream seller and can't look anyone in the eyes; there's the delightful Maryam Faddoul, who runs the coffeehouse that's the hub of Syrian social life in New York; there's the adventurous young heiress Sophia Winston, who is not the first woman to fall under the Djinni's spell; and there is the mysterious Joseph Schall, whose past holds secrets pertaining to both the Golem and the Djinni.

I enjoyed this novel a great deal: it reminded me, in places, of Helprin's A Winter's Tale. The two protagonists are a study in contrasts: male and female, fire and earth, liberty and duty, old world and new. They also share a well-founded distrust of (and fascination with) the humans they encounter: and both are bound by the need to conceal their true natures.

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