Likely Story Book Club Review:
The Golem and the Jinni
by Helene Wecker
Last month, we started our very own book club. A Likely Story is for those of us who revel in escapist fiction and long for more stories built in brilliant worlds with strong and flawed heroes and heroines; Young Adult, Fantasy, Dystopian, Fairy Tale, Magical Realism, Legends, Mythologies, and Tall Tales of every type.
Our debut pick for A Likely Story was The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker.
In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free
Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.
Here is our joint review, compiled from our Likely Story Book Club discussion on Facebook:
A Likely Story Book Club Review:
The Golem and the Jinni
by Helene Wecker
“Well written, compelling, fantasy/historical fiction encompassing themes including the nature and value of free will, lust for power/fear of death, and loyalty to family and community told via the astonishing tale of a golem and a Jinni who find themselves and each other in late 19th century New York city.” Barbara Safee Stouter
“It’s a love story. It is not a romance. I loved the setting. I loved how the big questions were asked. Religion plays a big part in their stories. Good read.” Tina Sedor Bounds
THOUGHTS ON THE RELIGIOUS AND FAITH ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL:
“It is very unusual to read about Jews in a story where the story isn’t Jewish/ about some aspect of Judaism (Naomi Ragen’s books for example) unless the slant is antisemitic in nature which this book isn’t. It deals with the mystical aspect of Judaism (Kabbalah) which is also very unusual and a golemn at that. In Judaism the study of mysticism is very strictly regulated. Only men over the age of 40 are allowed to study it and they are not allowed to discuss their studies in public. Naturally there are lots of people who study it regardless of the rules but still it is not well known literature. The depiction of the Jews and the Jewish neighbourhood as well as the immigrants was spot on. I am pretty sure that the same was for Arab cultures described. Life is sacred to Jews. The Torah very clearly states the rules for how we should behave towards fellow people as well as animals – all based on respecting one another. So the Rabbi’s attitude towards the Golemn is not surprising. I think the strangest part for me was the fantastic elements of the Golemn and the Jinni set against the backdrop of Jews and Arabs which has a very real feel for me (I live in Israel). Bottom line I think is that it is weird to read a book about Jews that isn’t in any way about Judaism or the Holocaust.” Mandi Levitan
“I saw the two main characters as representing two different responses to faith, which I would define for these purposes as a dynamic friendship with God. The Golem represented religion – acting out of obligation or guilt, lacking the ability to engage freely in relationship. The Jinn represented hedonism – whatever makes me feel good is the right thing to do. Both of them were unable to engage in fulfilling relationships with humans (in the Golem’s case, her creator) because of their natures. I think they both made efforts to temper their natures (don’t we all?), and succeeded to some degree, but it’s pretty clear throughout the book that the only friendship either of them truly values is their friendship with each other (except the Rabbi – I think he represents grace). Authenticity and trust are huge elements in this – if our true nature creates fear and animosity in others, we’ll hide as much as possible. And if we believe that God is innately against us, we’ll behave like the Golem, trying to follow all the rules to get God to like is, or like the Jinn, rejecting all the rules because who cares about the opinion of such a judgmental God?” Heidi Funkhouser Farr
OVERALL RATING: Using a rating scale of 1 to 5 — 1 being “this book is drivel; save yourself the time” and 5 being “this is one of my favorite books EVER, and I plan to read everything this author writes” — we rated The Golem and the Jinni a collective 3.7. No one rated this book below a 3, but there was quite a bit of variety in the 3-5 ratings among the Facebook group.
“4. Solid, engaging, character-driven, immense world building, and I loved the way all the loose ends tied in together by the end. 5 is a bar not even my favorite series meet (Harry Potter and Paksennarrion: I haven’t read everything by either JK Rowling or Elizabeth Moon) but I couldn’t stop turning pages and the characters were sooooo human. (Even when they weren’t.)” Kyla Nannery Galbraith
“3. I was able to get into the story and enjoyed it. And, I won’t need to read it again.” Tabitha Bird Weaver
“5++ I’m planning to read it again while waiting for the next book. Took me a while to figure out where the plot was going but I found the characters so gripping I just wanted to keep reading.” Cornelia Spoor
“I may have to re-read it in the not too distant future! I read fast because I wanted to see what happened next!” Corrie Mantell Kolbe
The Golem and the Jinni was, truly, an original and unique story. Speaking for myself and not the rest of the book group, I will say it was a slow start for me. I tend to be pulled in by books that are high on action and adventure, driven by dialogue, and built in beautiful, imaginative worlds. The Golem and the Jinni was, instead, very much about internal and intrinsic motivation, set ostensibly in New York but really in the characters’ minds, and I was surprised that the novel was nearly half done when the two main characters finally meet, which says more about the way the publishers chose to market the book than perhaps about the book itself. It was interesting, for sure, but not my usual foray into escapist literature. I was fully engaged in the story after the first 8-10 chapters, though, and enchanted by the way Helene Wecker feathers the characters’ stories and timelines together, asking age-old questions about faith, community, and nature vs. nurture. She set herself a tall task writing nonhuman characters and managed to keep them both other-than-human and compellingly sympathetic throughout the book. Overall, a very strong debut novel for Wecker.
OCTOBER BOOK COMING SOON!
October’s book will be entirely different from The Golem and the Jinni. My goal is to hit a variety of escapist fiction genres. The Golem and the Jinni was both fantasy and historical fiction. Our October book is a young adult steampunk, alternate history novel. In other words, October’s book is coming soon… TOMORROW, in fact, on October 3rd. Stay tuned!