The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker
The Golem and the Djinni had all around been proclaimed one of the (if not the) best fantasy book of 2013. When I saw I could buy it cheaply I jumped at the opportunity. I finally started reading the book a few weeks ago and got sucked into a vivid world with powerful characters. The book takes its time to reveal a quiet story about two beings so much more human than many of the other actors in this play.
The book tells the story of a Golem and a Djinni both coming to New York around 1900 and having to find their own ways in this so different world. The Golem was just awakened by her master before the man died and left her unprepared to face the world. Her fate is worse, because not only does she have no idea how the world works, she can hear the needs and wants of the people around her too, which she’s unequipped to deal with. Only an old rabbit who recognizes her for what she is (because she’s a masterwork indistinguishably from humans) can help her find her own way in the new world.
The Djinni gets freed from his “lamp” by a tinsmith, having slept for hundreds of years, without knowledge how he got trapped in the flask. He, too, has to learn how to life in a world that doesn’t believe in beings like him, with the tinsmith taking him in and trying to protect him from an unforgiving world. Unable to change into his natural form, he’s trapped in a human body.
“What you’re missing is loneliness. All of us are lonely at some point or another, no matter how many people surround us. And then, we meet someone who seems to understand. She smiles, and for a moment the loneliness disappears. Add to that the effect of physical desire–and the excitement you spoke of–and all good sense and judgement fall away.”
Both these main characters are quite literally like fire and cool earth, the Djinni being brash and burning bright, the Golem scared of being discovered and destroyed, or worse, succumbing to the brutal beast lurking behind the quiet facade and wreaking havoc. They clash, but they fit together like pieces in a puzzle.
In the end, both of them, as non-human as they obviously are, seemed more human and often more alive to me than the humans featured here, even those linking their fate to these creatures and trying to teach them the ways of this human world. It’s interesting to follow them and watch how they experience this world, their challenges and how they deal with them.
For example, both of them don’t need to sleep, so they try to pass these dark hours as best they can; the Djinni exploring the whole city while the Golem sits bored in her small room, scared to go outside at night, where she might be discovered. Both try to find their own way in the human society, but in the end this was not the life they were “made” for. Can they even be happy holding normal jobs and playing “human” while being driven all the time? That’s a question you’ll have to find out yourself.
The book is worth the praise it’s gotten and I’ve enjoyed it. It is, however, not one of my favorite books. It was just too quiet for me. Maybe that’s because of a driven nature I myself exhibit at the moment, but the book took too long to get somewhere and while watching the two non-humans learning how to live was interesting, it did not drive me back to reading as soon as possible. It’s a long book even for the fantasy genre, but I still took much longer to read through it than other books the same size that had a more exciting story.
Even the antagonist and his search for everlasting life, which led him to New York, did not bring much tension into the book. Most of the “action” lies at the very end of the book, but I found even that to be quiet and oddly calm. The very end, however, had me smiling to myself and I left the book satisfied, if not amazed.
Another thing I wasn’t so keen on either was the fate of the antagonist. I can’t tell you more about my issue with it without spoiling part of the book, so I’ll add a spoiler to the next page, should you really want to know or if you’ve already read the book.
Concluding: If you’re looking for a quite book about characters that are both more than human and so very human themselves, this is for you. It shows impressive prose and a great structure, showing a remarkable grasp on what makes a book work. It was, however, too quiet a book for me, but that might be my current situation speaking. Take it with a bit of salt. If you need something new to read, consider taking up Helene Wecker’s work. I doubt the book will disappoint you. And at least at the moment, the kindle version is cheap enough to have no reason to not pick it up.