The wonderful debut novel out tomorrow.

The wonderful debut novel out now.

The Golem and the Jinni

  • Author:  Helene Wecker
  • Published:  23 Apr 2013
  • Publisher:  Harper
  • Pages:  496
  • First Line:  “The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.”

The Novel:  One of the benefits of working in a bookstore is getting to read books before they get released.  Some of them are complete duds.  But some really catch your eye.  This one included lines on the back like “If you were bewitched by The Night Circus” (well, I put it in my second 100 list, so yes, I was) and “If you were enthralled by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” (well, I call it the best book of the 21st Century so far, so yes, I would say I was), so that really caught my eye.  “You will be enchanted by The Golem and the Jinni.” it promised.  Those were bold words.  But it had good praise.  And it had a fantastic title and a magnificent cover (admit it, some books you read because of the cover).  So I picked it up and took it home.

And I was enchanted by it.  From the very first page, I was enchanted by it.  Of course, I already knew what a Golem was, not just because I have read the Terry Pratchett books, not just because I have read Kavalier and Clay, but also because I have seen the old classic German film The Golem.  So even the title was already intriguing me, with it promise of a mixture of Jewish theology and Middle Eastern mythology, of the powerful meeting of two ancient creatures, clearly coming to life sometime in New York City, with the Washington Square Arch right there on the cover.

We don’t begin in New York though.  We begin in the old country, in the area around Danzig, with the young funeral maker who decides that he wants a bride and that the best way to get one is to have one created for him (not exactly the general use for a Golem in most tales, but intriguing right from the start).  And he wants to take the creature with him, across the sea, to the new world.  But, within a few pages, he has died on the boat and the Golem is left on her own, without a master, without guidance, without the commands that she desperately needs.  That alone would be a curious enough story.  But to also have it coming to life in late 19th Century New York, the same world that Caleb Carr made so riveting in The Alienist, is even more fascinating.

And then into that mixture comes the Jinni, trapped in a flash for 1000 years, suddenly sprung to life in the streets of that same bustling city, with life teeming all around him and his beloved sand an entire ocean away.  And then there is more – the Golem’s creator, with his fascinating back story, suddenly finding himself called across the ocean, to find what has become of his creation, to find, perhaps, the secret to life everlasting.

To compare The Golem and the Jinni to Night Circus and Jonathan Strange is apt in several ways.  First, they are all first novels, and yet, they are written with depth of characterization and strength of narratives that bely that fact.  They never feel like debut novels.  Second, they all manage to combine the fantasy genres with the more literary exploration of characters.  What I so denigrated in another well-known first time fantasy novel, The Historian, was that it was kept by many bookstores (including my own) in Literature, when, in fact, it was written as a genre novel, with emphasis on plot and quick-moving story rather than characterization or language.  Yet, Golem, like Night Circus and Jonathan Strange, never feels the need to stress plot over character, to force actions which do not flow from the characters themselves.  It is a fantasy novel, yes, and that may turn many away who would otherwise enjoy it.  But it also is a historical novel, alive in its fascinating detail of life in the teeming metropolis at a fascinating time.

I don’t want to mention too much of what happens for the same reason that I didn’t include the last line, like I did on the Top 100 posts.  Let the story unfold before you and see what you think and let this world come alive for you.  It certainly came alive for me.  And I hope that Wecker writes more, because this is a fantastic debut.  After a disappointing 2012 in fiction, for me at least, it’s great to have a book for this year that I can just hand to people when they ask me for a good book to read.