Helene Wecker’s new The Golem and the Jinni reads like When Harry Met Sally, if Harry and Sally were beasts
But, even more than the Golem, the Jinni is unhappy with his new American life. He is an ancient fire-spirit who was trapped in human form by another evil sorcerer, who bound him by means of an iron cuff. Because he is made of fire, he can be extinguished by water, which means he can’t go outside in the rain. Most of all, however, he misses the irresponsible freedom of the Jinni’s life in the desert, flying around in solitude and occasionally seducing human women for fun.
Inevitably, the Golem and the Jinni meet one night on the street, and each is automatically able to recognize the other. They form a partnership—neither romantic nor crime-fighting, as one might expect, but a sort of supernatural landsmanshaft, helping one another acclimate to their new lives. Chava goes to work in a bakery, where she is so mechanically efficient that she must force herself to make mistakes in order to pass for human. Ahmad makes tiny metal animals and then a whole decorated ceiling, which becomes the talk of Little Syria. And both end up in romantic entanglements with humans. Ahmad talks his way into the bed of Sophia Winston, a rich heiress (and a particularly thin character: “There was a high color in her cheek, a marvelous complement to her close-fitting burgundy gown”). Meanwhile, Chava, still unsatisfied without a master, gets married to Michael Levy, an agnostic do-gooder who runs a settlement house for Jewish immigrants.
It’s clear that The Golem and the Jinni has the potential to be a more literary novel than it finally wants to be. Chava’s predicament raises questions about female subservience and power; Ahmad, meanwhile, is a kind of Byronic supermale, unwilling to be tied down by duty or relationships. As both make their way in their immigrant milieu, Wecker has the opportunity to sketch what life was like for our ancestors, but she restricts herself to broad, familiar strokes: the ice-cream peddler, sleeping on balconies in hot weather, and so on. And psychology, almost by definition, has no place in a novel about magic monsters.
In any case, the novel’s more serious concerns are eventually lost as the action heats up. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the evil sorcerer who made the Golem and the evil sorcerer who captured the Jinni are connected; magic spells on ancient parchments are hidden and found; and good eventually triumphs. Socially, too, the message is a hopeful one. The division between Arab and Jew, so intractable in real life, becomes in fiction a mere difference in names: Both cultures are simply sources of folklore, colorful and full of magic—a sci-fi ecumenism. Wecker even leaves things open for a possible sequel—the Golem and the Jinni, like Harry and Sally, seem to be moving from friends to lovers. Surely their offspring, like the book itself, would be unstoppable.
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