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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Golem and the Jinni

Wow, I finished this book 2 months ago and have been hand selling it to patrons every chance I get. I have even talked about it at Book Lover's Club, but I have completely forgotten that I have not written about it on the blog yet.  Yikes!

I am talking about the fabulous and enchanting The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. As way of an intro, here is what I wrote for the May Book Lover's Club meeting:
In this lyrical debut novel Wecker combines fantasy and historical fiction in a cleverly told immigrant tale set in 1899 NYC.  The catch is our protagonists are no ordinary immigrants.  We have the Golem, a sentient creature made out of clay from Jewish folklore and a Jinni, a genie from Syrian folklore.  Wecker lays out their coming to America tales in alternating chapters. Eventually they meet, and together they try to solve the mysteries of their origins and their lives as they must be in America.  This is a captivating and original story that reminded me of a combination of Forever by Pete Hamill (immigrant to NYC plus magic storyline), The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (dark fantasy with amazing world building, fluid storytelling, darkness but with hope)  and People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Jews and Arabs working together to save something precious).
This is an amazing original, fun, and compelling story.  The pov bounces back and forth which quickens the pace, a pace that steadily builds in intensity. Wecker is able to tell the Golem's story and the Jinni's history independently from their interactions with each other, but she is also able to combine the 2 folklore's from what are normally seen as violently opposed cultures into a cohesive story. [It is important to note we are dealing with Jewish culture and Christian Arabs].

Yes, I said she separates and blends their stories.  I know that sounds confusing, but she is very skilled (remarkably so for a debut author) and it works. I was completely wrapped up in each creature's personal story but equally as interested in their friendship and what would come of it.

The reasons someone would enjoy reading this novel stems from the unique type of magical realism that is the overall frame here.  It is magical realism in a specific way. This is important to note since magical realism is so prevalent these days, I feel this subgenre needs further clarification (if not another subgenre) so readers have a better idea of what they should expect.  In this case the magical realism comes from the way Wecker combines historical fiction with well known folklore in a seamless manner.  This is an immigrant story where the facts of their lives in NYC are detailed and historically accurate, but the main characters themselves are products of folklore.

Wecker has amazing descriptions of the landscape of ancient Syria, 1899 New York and life in these places.  It gives the book a cinematic feel.  I was there with these characters in the shops, walking the streets, and in the middle of the desert.  The sense of place is fabulous.

Finally, this fantasy, historical, literary fiction blend has a hopeful, dare I say happy, and resolved ending. It is a serious look at folklore and immigrant life at the turn of the century, but it is all packaged as a compelling and heartfelt story of two creatures looking for their place in a nonmagical world.  In the end, these folklore creatures have a lot to teach us human readers about ourselves.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  captivating, historical, folklore

Readalikes: To repeat what I said above, as I read The Golem and the Jinni, three specific books popped into my head. Pete Hamil's Forever, The Night Circus (dark fantasy with amazing world building, fluid storytelling, darkness but with hope) People of the Book (Jews and Arabs working together to save something precious).  I really feel as if Wecker's novel is what you would get if you smushed all three of these novels into one lump and run it through a strainer.

The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights with an introduction by A.S. Byatt (a great historical/folklore fiction author option too) is a good choice for more Arab folklore.

On the Jewish folklore side, I would suggest, a classic, Nathan Ausubel's A Treasury of Jewish Folklore.  It is an oldie but a goodie, but hey, these are old stories.  But seriously, this collection has stood the text of time and is still read (and given as a Bar Mitzvah gift) up to today.

While this is a text novel, it contains a lot of visual, lush descriptions which made me think that a graphic novel might be a good readalike here. If you are interested in a graphic novel, I would suggest the excellent Habibi by Craig Thompson.

I like this list of historical fiction with a dash of magic from Goodreads users.  These are all possible readalikes, but preview them in more detail because depending on what you like most about Wecker's novel, so may not work for you.

One from this list that I have read and feel is a nice pairing here is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Click through to see my review and discover more possible readalikes.

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