November 11th, 2018

Winter Sunlight

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

I just finished reading an absolutely lovely book that I picked up recently on a Kindle sale! Sadly it is back to full price now, but I loved it so much that I will probably end up buying a hard-copy version.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker is somewhere between urban fantasy and magical realism, a lyrical novel about two magical creatures hiding in the shadows of a (mostly, though not entirely) nonmagical world in turn-of-the-previous-century New York City.

(I'm going to refer to them both by their descriptions, as the book does, rather than names. They both adopt human names to blend in, but don't think of themselves that way.)

The Golem was made from clay to be a wife, intended to be nothing but a mindless automaton, but her creator gave her curiosity and then her husband's premature death leaves her masterless and forces her to learn who she is with no one telling her what to do.

The Jinni is a capricious creature of fire and air, trapped in a lamp for over a thousand years and released into the modern (well, circa-1900) world under the geas of an iron armband that prevents him from using his powers and traps him in a human body. How and why this happened to him, he doesn't remember, though unraveling that mystery is one of the plot threads.

Neither of them needs to sleep, and both are desperately lonely and bored in a city where they must constantly hide their true natures and pretend to be human, so eventually they end up inadvertently seeking out the one person they don't have to hide from.

But the book isn't just about them; it's also about the people they're surrounded by, in two vividly drawn early-1900s immigrant neighborhoods in New York -- the Golem's Jewish neighborhood and the Jinni's neighborhood of Syrian immigrants a few streets over. Essentially this is a book about two people who aren't human, and will never be completely human (their essential nature makes it impossible) becoming a little bit more human by interacting with the people around them, from whom they are forever separated but still connected to -- and the people they're connected to, an entire web of human connections: unwanted and chosen, healing and destructive.

I think the best way I could describe this book is that it reminds me of a best-parts version of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. It's got that book's evocative sense of place, compelling emotions, likable (but weird) characters, meditations on death and immortality, and general feeling of magic hiding in the corners of everyday life ... while being significantly less batshit.

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