Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni
Magical realism might just be my favorite genre of fiction. Tolkien-style fantasy is fun, but it lacks that real world grittiness of magical realism. For me, its easier to relate to characters who come from our world.
Some of my favorite magical realism works are American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.
Now, after listening toThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, I’ve got a new item on my list. It’s not in the top five, but it definitely makes my top ten.
Review: What is a Golem, and Who is Chava?
A golem is made out of clay. Wecker’s golem is female, but golems can be either gender, both, or neither. In medieval Europe, Christians believed that Jews used to kill Christian babies to use their blood for rituals. That accusation was called the blood libel.
These persecutions were not uncommon, and according to legend, a rabbi named Judah Loew ben Bezazel fashioned a golem to defend the Jews who lived in a Prague ghetto.
According to the Wikipedia, golems are similar to how Adam used to be before he became a normal person. People who make golems are using the same magic as god, which is pretty fucking cool. However, there’s one big difference: golems are bereft.
The word, “golem,” literally means “empty” in modern Hebrew. So I think it’s fair to say that Helene Wecker took some liberties with the mythology.
After all, our Chava is not only intelligent, but curious as well. She’s a complex character with a wide range of emotions, desires, and, most importantly of all, self-awareness.
Over the course of the book, Chava the Golem grows, changes, and evolves to live in her world of steampunk-era New York. She learns following each experience she faces, and changes her outlook from page to page. One of my favorite moments in the book was when she ate for the first time. She got so excited that she ran to the rabbi to tell him about her poop.
Review: What is a Jinni, and Who is Ahmat?
There are three kinds of Jinn: Ghul, Ifrit, and Si La. Ghul are graveyard shapeshifters, Ifrit are basically pure evil, and Si La can shape-change, too, and often they would take the form of a female to lure and kill men in the desert. Jinn are pagan, but they are also mentioned in Islamic canon.
According to Wikipedia, the word Jinn comes from جَنّ jann. This is a root word from which “to hide” and “to adapt.”
“Some authors interpret the word to mean, literally, ‘beings that are concealed from the senses’.”
Other weird words come out of this root word, jann, like this one: “مَجْنُون, meaning ‘possessed’, or generally ‘insane’.”
Suffice it to say that the Jinn rabbit-hole is pretty deep, so I’ll leave you to dive in if you dare. For now, it’ll be enough to say that there are good, bad and neutral jinn. A lot of them like getting into mischief. And they all are scared of iron. And if a human is smart enough, he or she can control a jinni. So, with all that said, Ahmat seems to be totally within the realm of existing Jinn canon.
Ahmat is all of those things, but he’s also more. He chose a name because the vowels sounded like the breeze, and that reminded him of home. But a name felt negative to him. It was only after he met Chava that he eventually learned to allow himself to enjoy being a creature of finite limitations: no floating around in the sky, no invading people’s dreams, no building invisible glass castles that glint in the desert wilderness when the sun hits it just right. Ahmat likes being a human. But he’s not ready to accept it until he becomes close with Chava.
In other words, Ahmat changes as a character. For me, his eventual acceptance of his finite form, with Chava’s help, makes the book satisfying to read.
And by the way, for some reason, people also ask Google whether JINNI is a valid Scrabble word.
A brief synopsis of the Golem and the Jinni (no major spoilers):
The Golem is a magical creature. She is culturally Jewish (but not religiously). She travels from the old country across the Atlantic ocean to New York with her master. However, her master (the person for whom she has been created) dies on the way over.
When she gets to New York, she’s confused, but a rabbi takes her in. He protects her. He teaches her how to hide her true nature from the world. He even helps her integrate herself into society. The rabbi dies.
Then she meets the jinni, and the story gets good.
The Jinni is also a magical creature. He is stuck in human form, but his true nature is much more powerful. He comes from the ancient Syrian desert.
There is an aspect of elementalism. Jinni are creatures of fire, where golems are creatures of earth. Each has a different relationship to water. Lowkey, this aspect reminded me of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
A metalworker takes the jinni in. The metalworker tries to shelter him, kind of like how the rabbi tries to shelter the golem. However, the jinni is too whimsical and free. He seduces a young, wealthy girl and impregnates her. He gets into fights at his home, and walks out into the city at night to ease his mood. Danger is his middle name.
The Golem and the Jinni: A Love Story (some minor spoilers)
Are the golem and the jinni romantically involved? I think so. But it’s not a juvenile love. Not the kind of hearthrobbing, explosive experience you might expect from a mischievous creature made of fire and a fierce, unstoppable woman made of clay. By the end of the book, I think they do love each other. And it’s a mature love. They understand and care for each other in a very intimate way, but they never got physical with each other, at least as far as we know. I like to think they got together after the last page. I also like to think they got married and traveled the world.
There is more to it, but I’m going to avoid spilling the ending, which is quite good.
The Audio Version of The Golem and the Jinni: A Review
George Guidall narrated the Audible version of The Jinni and the Golem.
George Guidall also narrated the latter iterations of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, and he did a phenomenal job with those. He is such an engaging performer. However, he was the wrong choice for this piece, and I’ll tell you why.
Guidall can’t do accents.
Every time he tries, it ends up sounding vaguely Irish. Once you hear it, you won’t be able to unhear it. He did that in The Dark Tower as well, and it drove me bananas. In Guidall’s hands, Yiddish and Arabic come out to the same vaguely Irish intonation. If you can get over that, though, his performance is really quite good. Heart-rendering, I dare say. Plus, the very quality of his voice is super relaxing and non-abrasive (but not monotonous! a tough balance to achieve).
Final Opinion and Review of the Golem and the Jinni
If you like magical realism, I suggest either reading or listening to The Golem and the Jinni.
There are some cliches, including more than one of what I think of as “Disney moments.” The author is clearly a child of the 1990s who appreciated Walt Disney’s animated films of that decade. But do I blame her for repeatedly drawing inspiration from 1992’s Aladdin? And I’m not talking about oh, they both had a genie; there were full scenes in The Golem and the Jinni that felt like thin transcriptions of the Disney film, and it took me out of the book. So do I blame Wecker for that? Yeah, it was kind of annoying. But it’s small potatoes. Golem and the Jinni was a really good book.
It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was deeply involved. The author did a lot of research. The characters were rich. They had clear desires and struggles. They interacted in intriguing, sometimes unexpected, ways. There were a few Deux Machina moments that were a little annoying. Overall, The Golem and the Jinni was a gorgeous story, full of rich images and strong, realistic emotions.
And, hell yeah, the magic was cool, too.