A man commissions a Golem created for him to be his wife right before he sails from Danzig to New York. He awakens her halfway to their destination, just in time for him to die of appendicitis. Without a master now, the Golem can hear the wants and needs of everyone around her. She is rescued from the chaos of New York by a rabbi who can see right away what she is. He teaches her how to live before he also passes away.
In a tinsmith’s shop in a different part of New York, a man accidentally frees a Jinni. The Jinni cannot remember the last eight hundred or so years of his life, trapped in the flask, and he is trapped in human form by an iron ring around his wrist. He also must learn to live in modern, human society.
These two meet, of course, at one point in the story, but to say that is the main story would be too simple. There are also the stories of Schaalman, the Golem’s creator; of the wizard that trapped the Jinni in the first place; of the human woman that the Jinni had gotten involved in before his entrapment; of Sophia, the woman he seduces early in the book; of Arbeely, the tinsmith; of Meyer, the rabbi; of Michael, the rabbi’s nephew who has thrown off religion and who has an infatuation for the Golem; of Michael, the little boy who worships the Jinni; of Ice Cream Saleh, who is possessed by a Jinn of some sort; of Anna, the pregnant coworker of the Golem’s, and all her other friends; of the coffeehouse owners, who are social and bring so many of the other characters together. Each of them get to tell their own story, narration passing back and forth between them, weaving in and out of time. They all come together in ways I never would have guessed in advance. The plotting was fantastic.
Not just the plotting. The characterization was wonderful. Each of these people – and creatures – felt real. None of them were too perfect, but flawed, and not even in likable ways at times. Both the Golem and the Jinni did things that were unforgivable, things that they could not help doing, because those things were simply part of their nature. In the end, even those people who were evil – like Schaalman – were simply acting according to the nature they were born to, almost as if none of them had any free will.
The writing was great as well. I read the book slowly over a week or so, savoring it. It was literary without being stuffy, deep, symbolic, with so many different layers. It avoided some of the conventions that too many modern books go into. For example, it would be expected from the beginning for the Golem and the Jinni to fall in love. But they don’t. They slowly develop a very deep friendship, but there are places where they still resent each other, and don’t even like each other. By the end, they have a tied between them that is strong, but neither can escape their nature: the Golem cannot feel romantic love; the Jinni will always be fickle. They develop a close but imperfect friendship that borders on love, without ever tipping over that way. By the end, they feel less like friends or lovers, and more like family. I adored that.
Another thing I adored: the ending. Nothing fully wrapped up, but not in a way that felt like the opening of a sequel. It was just that nothing, in the end, could be perfect. The Golem is tied to a new master who is trapped in a flask. She killed people and did some monstrous things, and cannot forget that while she was doing them, she was happy. The Jinni cannot get free of his iron wrist-binding. Anna never does find someone to marry. Matthew has to go across the world to live with his grandmother in a place he’s never known before. Michael dies for no reason other than that Schaalman gets angry. Sophia is never cured from having once been pregnant with a Jinn. Ice Cream Saleh sacrifices himself to save them all, and the way he saves them might not be any better than what would have happened to them otherwise. There’s a lot of mix in the end of this book, and it is certainly open in a way where the author could write another volume, but it works perfect as a standalone, and hope it will stay that way.
I am very impressed with this debut novel, and hope to own it myself one day. Fantastic.