Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I loved it, but...

"An immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, Helene Wecker's dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master-the husband who commissioned her-dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she 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 by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free-an unbreakable band of iron around his wrist binds him to the physical world.

Overwhelmed by the incessant longing and fears of the humans around her, the cautious and tentative Chava-imbued with extraordinary physical strength-fears losing control and inflicting harm. Baptized by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, the handsome and capricious Ahmad-an entity of inquisitive intelligence and carefree pleasure-chafes at monotony and human dullness. Like their immigrant neighbors, the Golem and the Jinni struggle to make their way in this strange new place while masking the supernatural origins that could destroy them."
Taken from

Once I decide I like a book, I turn around a nit-pick at the one thing that didn't make sense to me. I really did enjoy this book. I loved the idea of the main characters; a golem and a jinni and I loved the setting, 1899 New York. Just from reading the blurb, I knew it would a wonderful book, and it was!

It is a slow-moving book that took thought and pause while reading it, which I enjoyed. Since I spend most of my time reading YA novels it was nice to read a book where I actually had to think and learn. I thought the setting was perfect. In 1899 immigrants were flooding New York and little neighborhoods were established that reflected the different places from the old world that they were travelling from.

One of the things that bothered me were the characters in Little Syria. Why were they Christians and not Muslims? The Jinn are a tradition that comes out of Arabic legend and are mentioned in the Qur'an so why were the people that the Jinni was surrounded by Christians, or more specifically Maronite? This prompted a search (yes, mostly Google and Wikipedia---don't tell my students!) and apparently Little Syria had a large population of Maronite Immigrants fleeing their oppression from the Ottoman Empire. That was an interesting piece of information, why wasn't it in the book? In a book as intricate and descriptive as this book is, this should have been mentioned. It is possible that it was mentioned briefly and I missed it but there should have been an explanation.

This then begs the question, why did the Jinn end up in Little Syria and not some other area with a more dominant Muslim population? When I first saw the title the Golem and the Jinni my mind immediately went to Jewish mythology versus Arab/Muslim mythology. Perhaps there would be religious or cultural conflict that we are so used to seeing between these groups of people. By putting the Jinn in a mostly Christian/Maronite group the conflict I was expecting was not there. Was this a deliberate action from the author and if so, why?

I thought the larger philosophical or more universal idea of the book to be very engaging and thought-provoking. Chava was created to serve a master but she was able to put aside what she was created to be in order to live in this world among people. Near the conclusion of the book the Jinni was willing to try and live in this world as best he could, while the man who created Chava had refused for generations to defeat his bad nature and work for good.

This was a great book that made me look up information on my own, it kept my attention and ended with hope. A wonderful read that I highly recommend.

4/5 stars

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