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The mystical traditions of two cultures collide in US author Helene Wecker’s atmospheric debut novel The Golem And The Djinni (HarperCollins). Set among the immigrant communities of New York in 1899, this is a love story of sorts, but also a battle of good versus evil that blends the fantastical with the real to great effect.
In Jewish folklore a Golem is a creature crafted from clay and brought to life to serve its master unquestioningly. The Golem of this story is an attractive woman created by an unscrupulous, magical genius to serve as a wife for a Prussian Jew who is immigrating to New York. But when her master dies on the journey the Golem is left without a purpose.
Wandering alone in New York she is recognised for what she is by a wise old rabbi who takes her in and helps her learn how to behave like a human so she can live among the Jewish community.
At the same time in the Little Syria neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan a tinsmith called Arbeely is repairing the dents in an old copper flask. As he touches it with his soldering iron he releases the Djinni trapped inside by a wizard centuries ago.
For a while the Golem and the Djinni lead separate lives, struggling to make their way in this strange new place. She takes the name Chava and goes to work at a bakery, he calls himself Ahmad and learns to be a tinsmith. Everyday life is tedious beyond belief for both of them. Needing neither to sleep nor eat, to fill the long hours without giving themselves away is a grim challenge.
The Djinni, while pining for his glass palace in the desert, at least can spend his nights exploring New York but the Golem, being a woman, is trapped indoors after dark and occupies her time unpicking and sewing up the same garment over and over again.
At long last they meet and, recognising each other’s true nature, the pair become uneasy companions, then soulmates until finally discovering the shattering way their fates are linked.
This is an epic novel – possibly too epic. While I get that Wecker has to convey how dull and repetitive human life is for her folkloric creatures, she might have done so in fewer words.
Despite that it is an enjoyable read: original, unusual, sensitively written. Wecker succeeds in bringing together Jewish and Arab myth and immigrant history, as well as bringing to life New York at the turn of the 20th century. But her greatest triumph is the way she weaves in real human characters – Saleh the tragic ice cream seller, kindly coffee house owner Maryam Faddoul, spirited socialite Sophia Winston – so somehow making it seem as if magic might really be out there hovering at the edges of our lives just a little out of sight.