Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book : The Golem and the Jinni

(Image from C/W Mars catalog)

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker does not actually focus on the mythological aspects of golems and jinn.  It is the story of two unlikely friends, Chava, a female golem made out of clay, and Ahmad, a jinni from the deserts of Syria.  Both characters are brought to New York City, somewhat against their wills, at the turn of the twentieth century, where they must learn to blend in and find their own path in life.  Along the way they meet many other people in their separate cultural communities and come to find that their lives are more entwined than they ever could have imagined.

Instead of being characteristics that sharply define the main characters and help drive the action, the supernatural aspects of their beings are treated more like any other type of backstory that an immigrant to New York City would have.  There is little discussion of other golems or jinn and what happened to them, and there are no other supernatural creatures mentioned or encountered at all.  When I first decided to read this book, I had been hoping that there would be an underground society of supernatural beings in New York City that would help bring these two unlikely friends together, but there is really no talk of what other supernatural creatures might be out there if golems and jinn can exist.

The fact that Chava is a golem and Ahmad is a jinni is not the focal point of the story but the primary vehicle through which the author can inject social commentary into the story, especially about gender, religion, and societal expectations.  Because Chava and Ahmad are not human but are expected to act like them, they must learn about society and thus the audience gets to view our strange human customs through the eyes of characters not born and raised into them.  Chava learns a lot about Jewish culture and customs as one would expect from a golem, which comes from Jewish mythology, while Ahmad compares what he remembers about Bedouin culture in the deserts to the Syrian immigrants he meets in the new city.  This adds a layer of interest to the story to help make up for the lack of world-building on the supernatural side of things.

Overall, it is interesting to see a story where the supernatural does not matter much.  It helps to inform some of the action, of course, and is necessary to the final resolution, but for the most part, the fact that Chava and Ahmad are mythical creatures does not make much of a difference in the story.  It is a very modern perspective to categorize such characteristics as just another minor difference such as race or gender that should not interfere with recognizing free will and the capacity for love and affection.  I was a bit disappointed in how little discussion there is of the mythology behind golems and jinn, but I think that this story is a good example of how such characters can be adapted to modern morals and perspectives.  It continues the tradition of adapting stories to current needs in order to keep the myths alive.

Wecker, H. (2013). The Golem and the Jinni. New York: Harper.

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