Debut novels can be tricky for new writers. Whether it is the only novel the writer will ever create or whether the writer wishes to continue churning out story after story, that starting novel is always challenging and whether the readers will love it, merely like it, or simply dismiss it is a mystery. It is a leap of faith dedicated writers are willing to take and Helene Wecker’s leap was a successful one.
Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and The Jinni is a story any fan of fiction, fantasy, history, and/or theology will instantly fall in love with. The Golem and The Jinni combines the Middle Eastern mythology found in The Arabian Nights and G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen with the fantastical stories only minds such as Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury could conjure up. So much is contained within the near 500 pages of this story and readers will not want to put it down until it is done.
In the New York City of 1899, immigrants from various backgrounds will discover their seemingly normal lives will forever be changed as two new beings arrive. A golem arrives from Germany on a ship with no master and no idea how to live without one. A jinni is set free from a thousand year imprisonment, but is trapped in a human body with no memory of how it happened or who trapped him. These two powerful beings must hide their true identities from the new world surrounding them and learn to live the way humans do. When the two find each other by accident, events unfold that can only be described as magical and the two must face a wizard that makes them wonder: was their meeting an accident or fate?
It is difficult to even create a synopsis for this story, for there is so much going on and so much to talk about, yet, at the same time, one cannot say too much without giving away important details. So let us focus on certain aspects of the story without revealing too much. Readers should be able to enjoy this story without anything being ruined for them.
The characters Wecker created are a very good place to start. Each character plays a vital role at some point in the story and each one gets his or her chance in the spotlight. Their lives are revealed to the reader with just the right amount of attention for detail and the reader, in turn, grows close to each of them. However, the two strongest characters are, of course, the two main characters and it is quite an intriguing pair: a creature made of clay who lives only to serve and a being of fire who can roam the world and does not have to listen to anyone; such different characteristics and, yet, they pair together so perfectly.
The golem is like a child trapped in a woman’s body, unsure of how the world works, and the jinni is, at times, a hot headed (no pun intended) powerful being who is reduced to live as a human with hardly any powers and who just wants to go back to his home in the Syrian Desert. When the two beings meet, their characters become even stronger. Their interaction with each other and their conversations are quite lively: full of questions, misunderstandings, and arguing. What is amazing about these two characters is that their desires are just like that of the average human: they want to live, they want to have a home, they don’t want to be alone, and they want to have the freedom to make their own choices. And, even though neither of them are human, they grasp what it truly means to be human (to make mistakes, to enjoy the small things, to live). These two mythical beings, who are the farthest from being human, act more so than any human character in the story. They express to the readers throughout the book’s entirety that it is all right to make mistakes, it is normal to have fears and doubts, it is not considered weakness to ask someone for help, and to never feel alone because someone will always be there.
The time and setting takes readers back to the very end of the nineteenth century and enters into the twentieth century with the characters living in New York. It is clear to see while reading that Wecker did her research. The New York of the past was much different than the New York of today: no one could walk on the grass in Central Park, women were not allowed to travel on the streets alone at night, hundreds of thousands of immigrants lived in the slums, boats arriving from overseas to deliver even more nearly every day and these people had to learn to live in a new land with a language they didn’t even know, just to name a few of the interesting facts. Wecker goes into much detail about the structures of the buildings and clothes the men and women wore. Going back in time was perhaps the best choice for this story, for a reader could not imagine these two fantastical creatures trying to adapt to the New York of today.
The story itself is breathtaking and can easily whisk readers away into a fantasy land that is all too real. Readers find themselves drawn into the mythology, fascinated by the historiography of early 20th century New York, and intrigued by the various forms of theology scattered throughout. For a first novel, Wecker has discovered a way with words and can form them into sentences that flow smoothly, taking a reader’s eyes on an unwavering trip down each page in one fluid motion. The talented Wecker has definitely impressed with her debut and it would be a wonderful feat if she could share more stories with the world.