BOOKS

'The Golem and the Jinni' by Helene Wecker: The Book We're Talking About

04/22/2013 03:56 pm ET
Harper

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Harper, $27.99
April 23rd, 2013

What is it about?
Combining mythical creatures from Jewish and Arabic culture, this novel is set in New York in 1899, and features the pair becoming unlikely friends while living among the immigrant communities of the city.

Why are we talking about it?
This debut novel is being talked about in similar terms to The Night Circus as a stirring, magical debut. Its intertwining of mythology and historical fiction is very engagingly written.

Who wrote it?
Helene Wecker is from a Jewish family, and her husband is an Arab American. She studied fiction at Columbia University, and currently lives in San Francisco.

Who will read it?
People who enjoy fables and tales of immigrant cultures in New York; people who enjoy magical realism set in America.

What do the reviewers say?
Publishers Weekly: "The ending dips into melodrama, but the human touches more than compensate in Wecker's spellbinding blend of fantasy and historical fiction."

Kirkus: "Wecker takes the premise and runs with it, and though her story runs on too long for what is in essence a fairy tale, she writes skillfully, nicely evoking the layers of alienness that fall upon strangers in a strange land."

Impress your friends:
The word Golem appears once in the Bible (Psalms 139:16) to refer to a shapeless substance. The most famous incarnation of the character (leaving aside Lord of the Rings, whose similarly named character is spelled "gollum") comes from a story created in the nineteenth century stating that Rabbi Judah Löw ben Bezulel in 16th-century Prague created a creature called Josef who could make himself invisible and summon the dead.

Opening line:
The Golem's life began in the hold of a steamship. The year was 1899; the ship was the Balitka, crossing from Danzig to New York. The Golem's master, a man named Otto Rotfeld, had smuggled her aboard in a crate and hidden her among the luggage.

Typical passage:
He tended to avoid conversation, only nodding at their greetings; but one evening, curiosity overcame his reserve, and he asked an Irish laborer if he could try his cigarette. The man shrugged and handed it over. The Jinni placed the cigarette in his mouth and drew in a gust of air. The cigarette disappeared into ash. The men around them goggled, then burst out laughing. The Irishman rolled another, and asked the Jinni to show how he had accomplished the trick; but the Jinni only shrugged and then inhaled more gently, and the new cigarette burned as theirs did. All agreed that the first cigarette must have been faulty somehow.

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