Well, what can I say? Wyrd and Wonder month is turning out to be a kickass month for me! My third read has been great fun, a beautiful fairytale-ish story about two uncanny beings who find themselves in turn-of-the-century New York. It presents a gently rose-tinted view of immigration in the late 1800s as a backdrop for a number of glorious characters, including our protagonists, and a slow-building adventure. And a sort-of romance.
Wecker has got the touch when it comes to writing engaging characters and I really enjoyed the many smaller stories than ran in and out of the main plot of The Golem and the Jinni. I particularly loved Maryam Faddoul and her husband Sayeed, who run a coffeehouse in Little Syria, and the tragic Ice Cream Saleh, who was once a doctor; gentle old Rabbi Meyer and poor trapped heiress Sophia Winston; and the quiet Matthew Mounsef. Wecker lavishes care and attention on each of them and I’d have happily read endless tales of their smaller daily struggles to make lives for themselves in the melting pot of New York city. The larger story of the golem and the jinni draws all these characters in, however, and all paths cross eventually in interesting and mostly satisfying ways.
The golem Chava, and the jinni Ahmad, are equally fascinating. (Everything I know about golems comes from Terry Practhett’s Feet of Clay and Going Postal, although that seemed to do me no harm here). Chava is unusual in being a female golem, created to blend in with humanity having been commissioned as a wife by and for the unmarriageable (and quickly dead) Otto Rotfeld. Brand new to the world and having lost her master Chava can hear the wants and needs of all the people in close proximity to her and her life is dictated to a large degree by that. Ahmad stands as her direct opposite. He is freed from a copper flask by the tinsmith Boutros Arbeely, having been trapped there for thousands of years by a powerful wizard and unable to remember anything about how he was caught. While he is stuck in human form because of an iron bracelet, he is in all other ways free to follow his every desire and is as impetuous and passionate as Chava is cautious and controlled.
I foisted this book onto one of my favourite customers at the same time that I was reading it which resulted in us having a very interesting conversation about how the story would have gone if the male character had been a golem as is traditional and the female character a jinni. Mrs M had expected a male golem because of their association with great physical strength, but we decided that a biddable, careful male protagonist, strong or not, and an impulsive, fiery female one in a late 19th Century setting would have led very quickly down a different path. If I was disturbed by this novel in any way, it was because of this. Chava’s ability to hear the desires of others and her compulsion to satisfy them feels, for me, predictably and annoyingly feminine. What would a male character with the same abilities do with them? Chava works in a bakery and takes in sewing in the evenings (neither she nor Ahmad sleep at night). Propriety, a less obvious want that underlies many others, keeps her in check. But a male golem, less constrained by propriety could no doubt become a successful con-artist at the very least.
And yet Chava’s struggles are all the more real because of this aspect of her design. She and Ahmad complement one another in that they each teach the other something foreign. The centuries-old Ahmad learns something about the consequences his actions have for others over the course of the book, and newly-born Chava learns something about her own wants. They become deeper characters through their night-time walks and discussions together, their qualities changing and/or solidifying by being challenged by the other. And all the while they circle that very human question: can we choose who we are? Can Chava choose who she is?
“‘She’ll already be obedient,’ Schaalman said, impatient. ‘That’s what a golem is – a slave to your will. Whatever you command her, she’ll do. She won’t even wish otherwise.’
‘Good,’ Rotfeld said. … ‘Give her curiosity,’ he told Schaalman. ‘And intelligence. I can’t stand a silly woman. Oh,’ he said, inspiration warming him to his task, ‘and make her proper. Not … lascivious. A gentleman’s wife.'”
It’s not a question reserved only for these two, however. Each character in one way or another is having to decide who they are to be in this new country. Old traditions and religions rub up against new ideas, just as languages and neighbourhoods run alongside one another. The grandeur of Bethesda Terrace and the Washington Square arch is as much a part of this world as the tenements, the rooftops and the Bowery. Sophia Winston is as trapped by her wealth and the expectations of her family as Chava and Ahmad are by their need to blend into this city full of humans.
Loneliness and isolation also abound. Chava and Ahmad are isolated from their human friends by being something other than human, but even the many human characters suffer from loneliness, despite the crowded city in which they all live. Chava’s first guardian Rabbi Meyer is a lonely old man and Ahmad’s rescuer Arbeely feels the want of a wife or companion. Sophie Winston is lonely in her wealth; Michael Levy is lonely in his work at the Sheltering House. Chava’s friend from the bakery, Anna, is isolated by her unmarried pregnancy and poor Ice Cream Saleh by his madness. Surrounded as they are by friends, fellow countrymen, neighbours and lovers, still each person has to deal with some things unaided. It gives the novel a melancholy tinge that cuts the enchantment.
And yeah, sure, this book has its flaws. The dramatic ending is the weakest part after the slow build-up (the sense of foreboding that develops as we learn about Fadwa al-Hadid’s story is masterful), and apparently some of the details of practical Kabbalah in the book are not quite correct (not something I would have known, but this was mentioned in a couple of reviews I read), and it’s maybe a smidge romantic in its historical presentation, but heck, who cares? It’s great fun, thoroughly absorbing, and I hear there’s going to be a sequel – what’s not to love?