For a fantastic exploration of The Other in the city of New York, read The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.

Two creatures of myth. One city at the turn of the nineteenth century. At a time when a plethora of cultures streamed through Ellis Island, the jinni immigrated in a brass bottle. The golem marched out of the sea, mud staining her skirt.

A golem’s life could have but one tragedy, the death of the master. She lost hers in the Atlantic Crossing. She had been created to look human, a wife for her master. Far from some clay doll of lust, she was gifted with a solid frame and an inquisitive mind. Her creator had every reason to expect her to become a dutiful wife. When her master’s appendix killed him mere hours after her awakening, she became a lost orphan.

Her telepathic link to the only human she understood was severed. The golem’s magic reached out, seeking new commands. The whims of the throngs of New York washed over her. Their desires threatened to drown her. Before she could go berserk, the clay woman reassured herself from the poise of the Statue of Liberty.

The job the golem found at a bakery gave her a measure of peace, but masquerading as a human eroded her sanity. She had to take care not to make macaroons too quickly, to suppress her inhuman efficiency. Every moment she had to resist the unspoken demands of customers. Each night she had to lie in her bed unsleeping, trying not to go mad, afraid she’d be discovered, that a mob would attack her. She did not fear for her own safety but theirs.

At the core of every golem’s servility lurked murder. Her closest friend, a rabbi, considered if she would be better off dead. His religion would not condemn him for destroying a dangerous object, but he decided that the clay woman had a soul. Or at least, he would feel guilty for snuffing her spark of intelligence. He saw the golem as a towering child, a girl mere months old. Her youth gave her little emotional resource to deal with the old rabbi’s death. Her breathless panic was well written by Helene Wecker.

In the same city but worlds apart, a smith in Little Syria melted down a brass bottle. The jinni that tumbled forth was a creature of flightiness and fire. An iron band of servitude shackled the jinni, imprisoning him in a human body. Once, he had chased dust devils over dunes and built castles of glass and mirage. Now he stooped over the forge, welding brass skillets. The indoors smothered his need for open air, while the New York weather threatened to extinguish him.

The conventions of humans disgusted the free-spirited jinni. A wedding ceremony reminded him too much of his own servitude to a wizard, a man who had died over a thousand years ago. The jinni could not even remember how he had been captured. He wandered the city rooftops at night, when creatures of watery flesh below in the tenements submitted to the convention of sleep.

He found diversions in visiting parks at midnight and breaking into museums. He dallied with a socialite, leaving her a golden bird he had crafted in his palm. She indulged in him out of fear that nothing of note would happen in her life before “old age and decrepitude, the slow transformation into a heap of black taffeta in a bath chair, to be displayed briefly at parties and then put out of sight.” The jinni never concerned himself with the effects of his play on humans. The story flashed back to his prior encounter with a shepherdess, whom he seduced in her dreams.

The perspective shifted further to the smith, the rabbi, the creator of the golem, and an ice-cream peddler. Ice Cream Saleh was arguably the story’s hero. He had practiced medicine, until a possession from a minor jinni left him crippled and nearly blind. He could yet see the jinni’s fire.

One person not so quick to find the jinni was the golem. Despite the novel’s title, two-hundred pages passed before the main characters even met. I could either say that nothing happened during those chapters, or that the author was building up their isolation. The Golem and the Jinni was a book about being The Other, of aloneness in crowd, the terminal pain of having to hide one’s true self.

Readers should also note that the novel was not illustrated with a golem’s heaving clay bosom in the simmering arms of a jinni. This was not a romance so much as two outsiders trying to understand mankind. The triumph arch in Washington Square Park baffled them, and they discussed it alongside the purpose of religion. That said, the jinni and the golem did make a handsome couple. He, a hero of fire, and she, a walking statue with snow glittering on her cheeks.

Neither was this a story of battling evil wizards. Though the golem’s creator had some nefariousness, the antagonist was ignorance. The jinni had to learn the consequences of his actions, and the golem needed to know when to shoulder aside her caution. They both had to find a space where they could be themselves.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to express my individuality by dancing on a cloud. Don’t worry. I’m light-footed.


By A. E. Marling

AE Marling is a fantasy writer, dancer, law-abiding citizen, and human being (in that order). He encourages everyone to touch the sky of human imagination and read fantasy. He collects reasons people love fantasy on his blog, The Importance of the Impossible. The siren call of his tweets emanate from @AEMarling.

2 thoughts on “The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker”
  1. I’ve seen a couple of reviews for this book recently and they’ve really made me want to get my hands on it. And your review is no exception; how did I do for so long without stumbling across this one? I feel like it’s one that I should have bought on the release date, because it sounds right up my alley. Oh well, so long as I read it eventually!

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