By Helene Wecker
Available now from Harper (HarperCollins)
Most debut novels are recognizably debut novels. Even the very good ones have those common little tics. But it's hard to believe that THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI is a debut. It has a grand scope, but keeps the stories intimate and personal. It's a meticulous bit of historical fiction married to the fantastic. When it briefly turns to romance, I believed the characters' journey to the relationship.
The golem is Chava, created to be the perfect wife for a man who dies on their trip to America. She is left alone to find a way to hide herself among the humans and start her own life. The jinni is Ahmad, a rather selfish being who has been recently freed from his imprisonment. They both live in immigrant communities in Manhattan, very close but with no contact until they stumble upon each other. Soon their lives become intertwined in unexpected ways.
The detail Wecker develops in the communities is amazing. And she doesn't forget to keep them separate, cheat to make things easy. There are language and culture barriers that do not change. At the same time, there are unexpected moments of connection. As Chava and Ahmad get jobs and meet people, they affect where they live. Sometimes they change things more than they expect.
Of the two leads, Chava is the more instantly likeable. But Ahmad progresses throughout the novel because he no longer has the power to set himself entirely above humanity. Even when he's a jerk, he's still interesting. Both characters are in quite the predicament. At the same time, no one coming to a new country has an easy time of it. Two mythical being blend in more than one might expect.
There are many plot threads and characters in THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI. As the book begins, it is easy to wonder why Wecker chooses to spend time in the heads of random characters. Everything beings to pull together, however, and builds to an extremely satisfying climax. Everything that seems random in the beginning contributes something to the end.
THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI is a fantastic novel. I think this one is a good choice for fans of Mark Helprin and last year's ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson. It has a similar marriage of genre and literary appeal. This immigrant epic has the perfect something extra.