Often I find that my favorite novels are ones that both blend and defy genre headings. The Golem and the Jinni fits that description. It’s part fantasy, part historical novel, part love story, part immigrant tale, and part coming of age, all woven together into one intricate and satisfying story.
In 1899, a Golem is awakened on a ship en route to New York City from Germany. At the same time, a Jinni trapped in human form is let out of a bottle in New York’s Little Syria, with no memory of how he came to be trapped. Eventually the two supernatural creatures meet and form a friendship, without realizing how intertwined their stories truly are until the story’s climax.
A little background: A Golem is a creature from Jewish folklore. They are made in the crude shape of a human, though built entirely out of clay. A spell brings them to life, but they are entirely without will and used to do the bidding of their masters. A Jinni (djinn or genie) is from Arabic folklore. The jinni are creatures of the desert, made of fire, and can take other forms as they desire. They often interact with humans, but inhabit an invisible world.
Wecker makes much of the mythological background of the Golem and the Jinni, and it’s fascinating how she uses the traits of these creatures to inform their characters–the Golem is steady and obedient, the Jinni is willful and adventurous, that sort of thing. Their personalities also inform how they feel about interacting with humans and their circumstances in general. The complexity of their reactions and interactions add a nice emotional layer to the story. It makes for a new facet of the immigrant story, too–not only must they get used to a new culture, they must also get used to humanity in ways new to both of them.
The sense of place is wonderful in this novel. Wecker brings turn of the 20th century New York City to life, from Park Avenue to the Jewish neighborhoods to Little Syria, to the dance halls and tenement buildings. It all feels vibrant and immediate, a well-constructed world.
The Golem and the Jinni is a fairy-tale at base, but its characters are much more fleshed and full-bodied than they would be in a folklore tale. Wecker really excels with her cast–they seem to breathe, and they all have distinct voices and backgrounds. The way all of the story threads come together is very well-done, and the ending is satisfying if a bit open-ended. In all, there’s a lot going on in this book and a lot to enjoy!
Readalikes for this kind of title can be a challenge, since so much depends on which part of the novel you responded to the most. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is similar in that it blends history and magic into a novel that defies a genre classification. It’s dense and intricately woven, with a fantastic sense of place (the Napoleonic Era in Europe), and a great cast of characters to follow.
Forever by Pete Hamill would be another good choice. It’s the tale of Cormac O’Connor, who leaves Ireland in 1740 on a quest to avenge his parents’ deaths. His journey leads him to New York, a settlement already teeming with unrest. When he comes to the aid of an African shaman, Cormac is given a gift in return–he will live forever, as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern might also be a good choice. That novel is about two rival performers in a magical circus who eventually become collaborators as they fall in love. It’s got a lyrical style and employs spectacularly lush scene-setting. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey might also be a good choice for readers who enjoy fairytale and folklore elements, too. That novel tells the story of childless homesteaders in Alaska in 1920, who build a child out of snow–and the next day a flesh-and-blood child walks out of the woods and into their lives.
If you liked the Golem’s part of the story best, and could take or leave the magical elements, you might try A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. As I was finishing The Golem and the Jinni I began one of my yearly or so re-reads of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and was struck by some of the narrative similarities. The simple beauty of the prose, for instance. The many storylines that become a cohesive whole, though not quite employed in the same way. Most of all, though, the wonderful descriptions of New York City at the turn of the 20th century.