By Helene Wecker
Imagine a tall, lightly tanned woman rises out of the shimmering Hudson River and strides into the crowded streets of Manhattan in 1899.
Then, imagine a flawlessly handsome, tall man mysteriously materializes after a surprise explosion in a tinsmith’s shop in lower Manhattan, also in 1899.
There you have the seeds of author Helene Wecker’s richly imagined fantasy about a golem (Chava) and a jinni (Ahmad). The golem, who was called into life just days before her appearance in Manhattan, is the creation of Yehudah Schaalman, 93, a discredited rabbinical student who has spent decades studying the darker arts of the Jewish tradition.
She was commissioned by Otto Rotfeld, the failed heir of a furniture-making family in Poland. He dies of appendicitis on the boat to America not long after he says the words that bring the golem to life. She jumps overboard when officials begin demanding to see her ticket; she has none because Rotfeld had brought her on board as cargo.
The jinni, on the other hand is centuries old, but has been trapped inside a copper flask for more than 1,000 years by a malevolent wizard. In his original form, he was a fiery insubstantial figure invisible to human eyes who roamed the desert of North Africa and Syria until his imprisonment. When the tinsmith, a Lebanese immigrant named Boutros Arbeely, accidentally frees him by rubbing on the flask, the jinni discovers that while he’s out of the flask, he’s still trapped in human form.
Both Chava and Ahmad are lucky enough to acquire guardians early in their lives in New York City. The city is exploding with immigration from Europe and the Middle East and reveling in its prosperity. The Brooklyn Bridge is still recognized as the world’s longest suspension bridge; Queens and Staten Island have just become part of the city. Scott Joplin has just written “The Maple Leaf Rag” and the Bronx Zoo has just opened.
Chava comes under the protection of Rabbi Avram Meyer, who observes her and recognizes that she is a masterless golem, completely adrift in a culture that has defined expectations of how women should be behave. He finds her a job in a bakery and teaches her how to manage her empathic responses to wants, needs and feelings of all whom she encounters. But he worries about what might set off her golem-nature protectiveness and enormous strength and potential for violence.
Ahmad falls under the protection of Arbeely, who tells his neighbors that Ahmad is his new apprentice. Although pretending to do work with human tools and torches, Ahmad’s internal fires allow him to work metal with precision and great beauty just by touch.
The golem and the jinni are a study in contrasts and similarities: The jinni has centuries of experience with the world and watching people; the golem has days; the jinni is a free-spirited creature who, until his imprisonment, went where he wished and did what he wanted; the golem was created to obey and be the slave of a master. The golem is empathic; the jinni is more narcissistic. Themes of service to others, freedom, love, and living in a world where you are both a part of and apart from the dominant culture are threaded through this story like threads in a tapestry.
In addition to the golem and the jinni and their guardians, the rabbi and the tinsmith, this story has dozens of secondary characters who play roles in the story. While the title suggests that this is a romance, it’s played out over the long, long timespans of the golem’s and the jinni’s expected lifetimes. By the end of the book, there’s hope for the couple – but no certainty that they would have an enduring romantic bond given their different natures.
At 512 pages, this novel is a saga that skillfully blends history and fantasy. The golem and the jinni don’t meet until a third of the way through the book. The story picks up speed in the final third of the book and becomes much more suspenseful. If you don’t like long, complex books, lots of secondary stories and fantasy, this may not be the book for you.
The book grew out of a series of short stories based on tales from her own Jewish family and her husband’s Arab-American family. It blends family stories with myths and folk tales in a historically realistic setting.
This book was followed by THE HIDDEN PALACE.
The Author: Helene Wecker
Helene Wecker grew up in a small town north of Chicago. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Carleton College in Minnesota. She worked in a number of marketing and communications jobs in Minneapolis and Seattle before deciding to return to her first love, writing fiction.
She moved to New York to pursue a master’s degree in fiction at Columbian University.
She currently lives near San Francisco with her husband and daughter.