The Golem and the Djinni – Helene Wecker

onceup8200 small This is the first book I finished for the Once Upon a Time VIII Challenge hosted by Carl@stainlesssteeldroppings. More reviews can be found on the review site.

A being made of earth. Another made of fire. Magic, a quest for immortality, religion, love and sexuality, this novel has them all and they are blended so perfectly together, the whole experience of reading the book made me go from six hundred pages, that’s a big book, to what, how many more pages left, less than a hundred, nooooo!

The golem is a creature made of clay, given life by an old rabbi whose path had long strayed from the Jewish faith. He molds her according to the instructions of the one that would be her master, a man bound for America in search of a fresh start. She was supposed to be the man’s wife, obedient, attentive to his wishes, curious and modest. And she comes with instructions, as her maker tells her new master – one command to bring her to life, one to destroy her, for golems are strong, unpredictable creatures whose nature can get the better of them. Later on in the story she is named Chava – life.

The Golem and the Djinni The djinni is a being of fire that can change shape at will. Roaming the desert, not bound to anyone or anything, his long years are spent building a glass palace in the desert and, because his curiosity is strong, following the caravans and trying to find out more about people. It is this curiosity and ultimately his involvement in the life of a young Bedouin girl, that will change his life, and forced into a human form he has to get used to new things and living among people with rules which he finds distasteful. He is named Ahmad.

The book is a wonderful story from beginning to end. The main characters, the golem and the djinni, are multidimensional, interesting, and faced with decisions that make them sympathetic to the reader. Both of them have to build a new life for themselves among people, hiding their true nature – the golem, her great strength and the ability to hear people’s thoughts, the djinni – his ability to melt metals with his bare hands and create beautiful metalwork. For a while, both manage to live a normal, quiet life, until their true natures begin to chafe at the rules imposed by human society and restlessness threatens to upset their carefully constructed lives. Also, they discover that some people can see they are not human, and an enemy with a plan of his own is threatening their existence. They find some unlikely allies, a man possessed by a djinni, a metal smith who proves to be a good friend, an old rabbi whose research is about to bring about a new discovery.

They become friends by accident, and their conversations are interesting and thought provoking, revealing details about themselves that I found fascinating. These conversations highlight their fundamental differences – while the golem is prudent, calm and composed, the djinni is impatient, passionate and given to reckless actions. Reading their conversations made me think that someone had deliberately split human characteristics and given them to the two creatures. At first it is hard for both of them to accept each other’s traits and imperfections but spending time together affects them both and forces the golem to be more bold and the djinni to accept the consequences for his actions.
The story moves back and forth in time, giving the reader plenty of details into the life of the djinni before he was captured by an old wizard, and the life of the golem’s creator. Because of this, the story feels complete, as there are no major questions left unanswered, except perhaps the one right at the end.

Under the magical beauty of the story, there are some threads worth exploring: living according to the rules vs following one’s instincts, hiding one’s special abilities for fear of rejection, and not in the least, trying to be happy in an unfamiliar and strange world. It’s an interesting analysis of feelings and actions seen from the perspective of two very different creatures that each have to learn compromise and that living among people means they have to adapt and in doing so, give up a part of themselves.

My rating: 5/ 5 stars

*Read in March 2014

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18 Responses to The Golem and the Djinni – Helene Wecker

  1. Sounds like an unusual and lovely story…and I do love characters who build a relationship through conversations!

    • Delia says:

      Hi Cheryl,
      It is very unusual. I’ve never read a story about a golem before and there’s a lot of detail about that in the book. Their conversations were quite interesting.

  2. Brian Joseph says:

    Great commentary Delia. This one sounds good.

    I find that when fanciful stories are combined with well crafted characters and thoughtful themes the result is a very special kind of book. Such a combination is alas, very rare.

    • Delia says:

      It’s a good book, Brian, from beginning to end not a moment of boredom. And such a new idea, bringing together two very different magical creatures. A special kind of book, well said.

  3. Vishy says:

    Wonderful review, Delia! This book looks really interesting! I didn’t know that golems had personalities. I thought they were just obedient to their masters. A golem and a djinni getting to know each other – that is quite fascinating! I liked what you said about the writer taking human characteristics and splitting them across the two creatures. Thanks for this wonderful review and introducing me to this new-to-me author.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Vishy,
      This golem is special, because she was made according to her master’s wishes. He wanted her to be curious, a very unusual trait to give a golem.
      I enjoyed the story a lot, and liked both the golem and the djinni.

  4. Olduvai says:

    I’ve got this on hold at the library. Didn’t add it to my list as I’m not sure when I’ll get my hands on it – should’ve thought of it earlier!

  5. TBM says:

    What a great start to Once Upon a Time. it’s wonderful that a book that seemed too long before you started won you over. Recently I read a massive book, Citadel, and I wondered if I would be able to finish it. Then I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough and was sad when it ended.

  6. Lynn says:

    What a great review. Very intriguing. I’m sure I’ve read about a golem before but I can’t remember when or why *goes away and puts on thinking ap*.
    Lynn 😀

    • Delia says:

      If you remember, Lynn, come back and let me know, please. 🙂 I’ve only read about djinnis in The Arabian Nights as far as I can remember.

  7. Priya says:

    I think I have heard of this book, but I’m not sure. Just the cover makes me want to read it, and so does your review, definitely. Golems are featured hugely in the Discworld books I read recently (a trilogy within the series – Going Postal, Making Money and Raising Steam.) The Discworld golems don’t have a gender, and when one of them begins to identify with a woman, things go kind of bad from there! It starts reading women’s magazines and becomes all moody and nagging. It’s funny, but I’d love to read a more sincere, emotional version of a golem.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Priya,
      I wish you would read it, I think you will like it.
      They sound funny, the golems you describe. They are definitely modern. 🙂 The one in this novel, Chava, is old-fashioned and while unpredictable at times, she’s not moody. Quite likeable.

  8. Athira says:

    I cannot wait to read this one. It has been so high on my wishlist since I started hearing about it. Glad that you recommend it too.

    • Delia says:

      It’s a very beautiful story, Athira, I enjoyed it very much. I found the book fascinating and quite unique. I hope you read it too, it’s one of those novels that’s difficult not to like.

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