The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker (2013)
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
What happens when a golem loses her master and is presented with the unchartered prospect of free will? What happens when a djinni, a shape-shifting spirit of fire who only serves his own pleasures, has his free will taken away and must live as a man? And what happens when these two unlikely creatures meet?
It’s New York in 1899, a colourful immigrant community full of tragic histories, merging cultures, shadowy quarters of crime, and families trying to make a better life for themselves. But no one could guess that among the growing population a wicked wizard poses as a kindly old man, and two creatures walk and live and work among them who are not even human.
A djinni trapped in a jar for 1000 years has been accidentally freed by a tinsmith in Little Syria. The djinni may be loosed from his prison, but he’s still magically bound by iron in a man’s body, and unable to shapeshift or take his true fiery form. A golem, created by a Prussian Jew using forbidden Kabbalistic magic, is freed by her master’s death on the transatlantic steamship and rescued from the streets by an elderly widowed rabbi. The creatures eventually find each other, and an unlikely friendship is formed, despite their oppositional characters.
The golem has a childlike quality to her as she struggles to navigate the complexities of humans and their desires, and it seems there is much grey area to negotiate. She's a sophisticated creation, her creator being a corrupt, but powerful magician, but she still harbours the potential for destruction with her elemental, superhuman strength. Meanwhile, the djinni finds humans exasperating; he’s used to the empty expanses of the Syrian desert and the freedom of a shapeshifting form, now he's in the close confines of a human body and of a heavily populated city. He's a seducing, pleasure-seeking spirit, in contrast to the dutiful, self-negating golem, yet they make an unlikely bond of friendship while the mystery of the djinn’s enslavement and the identity of the evil magician that pursues him unfolds .
Within this blend of fairy tale and historical fiction (my very favourite genre-mix) is a story exploring the awful power of life and death and creation in the hands of men. The framework is that of a simply told story, yet complex questions of existentialism are effortlessly explored: is cheating death the answer to the fear of death? Is reincarnation a second chance, or merely an evasion of the natural order? If there is good and evil, then there must be reward and judgement, else there is only nothing beyond selfish desire that heeds no consequences to anyone else. So many interesting themes abound within this fairy tale: the comforts and challenges of religion and community, cultural displacement and homesickness, the meaning of shared humanity, the nature of humanity. How much free will do any of us have, and what is it that makes us human?
I loved this eccentric and gentle love story rich with themes with a vivid historical setting. I was sorry to leave the golem and djinni behind, and am eagerly awaiting the sequel, due out next year.