Helene Wecker’s spellbinding debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, weaves a tale of two lost souls looking for a place to belong in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1899, a Golem awakens on a ship bound for America to find her master on his death bed. At the same time, in the Little Syria neighborhood of New York, a blacksmith releases the Jinni from an oil flask he has been paid to repair. The Golem, struggling to find a place where she belongs, and the Jinni, striving to uncover the past he has forgotten and find the man who trapped him for over a thousand years, must band together to stay alive in this brave new world.
Wecker writes with an intensity that captivates the reader, forcing me into this world of make believe. She beautifully details the separate neighborhoods of the Lower East Side and the rooftop streets that connect them all. Her decision to set this tale in 1899 allows the Golem and Jinni’s awakening to reflect the awakening of New York at the turn of the century. Although cars were not yet invented, public parks and the Brooklyn Bridge were still new developments, and the underground subway system was still being constructed. The city and the Golem and Jinni all were forced to adapt to this fast paced world. Wecker gives the city an innocent, youthful glow without ignoring the very true aspects of the time (drunkenness in the streets, prostitution, thievery, etc.). To read this is to be drawn into New York’s history, which is not an easy feat to accomplish.
The Golem and Jinni are also reflections of the immigration process and what it meant to leave your home behind and find yourself in an unfamiliar place. The Jinni struggles with his new name, knowing it is not his and doesn’t belong to him but that he must now go by it if he hopes to survive. Wecker also shows other characters forced to change their names to appear more American.
“Let’s call you something more American,” he [the Immigration Officer] said. “It’s for the best.”
The Golem must learn new customs in America like the immigrants who must leave their own culture behind. Wecker references the ties the upper class New Yorkers had with the police and how immigrant neighborhoods often lived in fear that they would be the next target of police brutality.
The Golem and the Jinni delivers a heartfelt, exciting, refreshing tale of friendship and adventure in the New York City nights. Wecker’s novel is an incredible piece of art and history that allows readers to escape into a world of magic and science and love.