The Golem and the Jinni: character-driven costume drama fantasy set in NYC immigrant communities

I love fantasy on an intimate scale like Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. I like watching magical beings struggle to protect their own lives and the lives of those close to them. I like it when a story treats them with the same dignity as literary, contemporary, and historical fiction treats its humans, as if a woman made of clay or a man who’s been imprisoned in a lamp for a thousand years have every right to dignified and noble emotions and self-exploration instead of being reduced to something shallow and cartoonish. So, I found this book a masterpiece.

The author has combined a series of philosophical questions about free will with a captivating story with characters so wonderful I wish I could see them dramatized.

When I first picked this up from the library and realized it was nearly 500 pages long, I was afraid that plus fantasy would mean I’d be drowning in worldbuilding. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is a deeply character driven costume drama-fantasy, set in the Ashkenazi Jewish and Syrian Christian immigrant communities of turn of the 20th century New York City.

What matters in each scene is the thoughts and motivations and relationships/interactions between the leading and supporting characters, which makes this far more riveting for me than a plot hinging on preventing some worldwide cataclysm. Instead, the author made me as a reader fear for the happiness of its supernatural leading lady and leading man and for the humans they’ve grown to care for. These are, among others, an elderly rabbi and his nephew, a pampered but trapped young heiress, a metalworker, a young woman who works in a bakery, and an ice cream seller who used to be a doctor (the book’s major Muslim character.)

The Jewish setting of this book was like snuggling into a warm blanket fresh from the dryer for me. I’m the New York born child of New York born children of Jewish immigrants; some of the streets these characters wander I know from personal experience. My grandfather grew up on the Lower East Side. Both sets of great-grandparents on that side spoke only Yiddish. The line about how everyone in the Lower East Side is craving normal bread towards the end of Passover made me Cheshire Cat grin.

The Syrian setting also came to life for me with characters both Christian and Muslim — mostly Christian, and the jinni himself is actually an atheist.

I wasn’t expecting the plot to twist the way it did, but when the twists started coming, I was pleased that the book delivered on its surprises instead of building to something less compelling than the preceding tension. I also found the ending a satisfying relief, but I can honestly say that I would have enjoyed the book even had it not had that particular soothing ending–and if you know me, you know that’s saying a lot.

Look, she made me actually root for a cis hetero couple! I know half of it is because I was so happy to be reading costume drama fantasy about Jews — but still, she established their connection as believable and desirable to the audience before giving any hint that the book was going to go there, and that takes skill. There are just so many romances out there where the only reason the reader cares about the couple is that the couple cares about the couple. But their connection was built on long walks at night (I am totally there) and on sharing a major difference from everyone else, together (being supernatural.) This means way more to me than any kind of physical attraction. And indeed, the book doesn’t ‘go there’ at all–although the jinni is quite physical with a few other women in the meantime–and that makes me like their connection more. (In fact, I suppose you could argue that the endgame is queerplatonic, but since I’m so allo I can probably heal burns–sorry, hyuk–that isn’t my call to make.)

Some other minor bits I liked: I appreciated that the author stuck in a throwaway line of jinni dialogue indicating that there are indeed gay or bisexual jinni, although the title character “prefers women”–in a book set in 1900, and not about queer people in any way, I really appreciated that. I also loved that she described the golem’s nose as turning down a little at the end because it’s not often I see my nose on things that aren’t propaganda.

But yes: free will, Jewish and Arab immigrants, fantasy and magic (he’s a metal bender! He can shape metal into cool stuff with his hands!), and 486 pages that zipped by for me in one day simply because there wasn’t a whole lot of, you know, chore reading. Something was happening on every page, every scene was needed.

Trigger warning for one of the most gently poetic and elegantly sad descriptions of a miscarriage I have ever read, for suicidal ideation/attempt, and for some Winter Soldierish violence in one of the desert flashback scenes.

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About Shira

Queer Jewish feminist author
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