The Golem and the Jinni - Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni is one of those books that is difficult to review.  The story is whimsical and character-driven and subtle, delicately embroidered with lush depictions of turn-of-the-century New York City.  The events unravels slowly and gradually, and the vibrant characters are gradually woven together in an intricate, precise pattern. 

 

As the title might have indicated, The Golem and the Jinni is the story of two disparate magical beings: a golem--a manmade servitor of clay-- and a jinni, an Arabic spirit of air and fire.  The Golem was constructed as a "perfect wife" for an immigrant to America, but when he dies on the voyage, she is set adrift in New York City, alone and masterless.  The Jinni is accidentally released from his imprisoning jar only to discover that he is trapped in the form of a man and still wears the iron shackle of his mysterious master.

 

At its heart, it is an exploration of freedom, of its conflicts and contradictions.  The story contrasts the Jinni, who longs for freedom from imprisonment, and the Golem, who craves the freedom from choice that the imprisonment of a master's will would give her.  Both are stifled by people, by perceptions, by their sense of alienation from society.  The Jinni's nature makes him unable to fully understand humanity, while the Golem's supernatural senses lead her to the brink of drowning in the emotions and thoughts of the multitude.  The Golem is so young, the Jinni so ancient, yet with his refusal to accept the consequences of his actions, it is the Jinni who feels like the child.  As the Golem says to him:

"And I suppose I should follow your example, and take all the pleasures I can!"

"Why not, if there's no harm done?"

"By which you mean that you aren't harmed, and that's what matters! [..] your life affects others, and you don't seem to realize it."

Both are repeatedly confronted by the paradox of freedom: the desire for independence versus the need for purpose.  I think the following conversation perfectly captures their disparate viewpoints:

"'I'm not accustomed to relying on someone else. It makes me feel weak.'

'How is relying on others a weakness?'

'How can it be anything else? [...] The event would be outside of my control, yet I'd be at its mercy. Is that not weakness?'

'I supposed. But then, going by your standards, everyone is weak. So why call it a weakness, instead of the way things are?'

'Because I was above all this once!' he said with sudden vehemence. 'I depended on no one! I went where I would and followed my desires.' [...]

She tried to imagine it [...] It felt terrifying. She said, 'I don't think golems are made for such independence.'

'You only say that because you've lived no other way.'

She shook her head. 'You misunderstand me. Each golem is built to serve a master.  When I woke, I was already bound to mine. To his will. I heard his every thought, and I obeyed without hesitation.'

'That's terrible,' the Jinni said.

'To you, perhaps. To me, it felt like the way things were meant to be. And when he died--when that connection left me--I no longer had a clear purpose. Now I'm bound to everyone, if only a little. [...] If I were as independent as you wish you were, I'd feel I had no purpose at all.'

He frowned. 'Were you so happy, to be ruled by another?'

'Happy is not the word,' she said. 'It felt right.'"

It is also a story of faith.  In a world where magic is real and can be invoked through prayer and invocation, what happens to faith?  In a world where pain is constant, how can there be a god?  A few of my favourite quotes:

'Perhaps the human did create their God. But does that make him less real?'

 

"Did its efficacy not prove that the Almighty was the supreme truth, the only truth? But now he saw that truths were as innumerable as falsehoods--that for sheer teeming chaos, the world of man could only be matched by the world of the divine."

 

"He didn't know when, exactly, he'd stopped believing. It had not come on suddenly, nor had he argued himself into unbelief, no matter what his uncle had thought. No, he'd simply noticed one day that God had disappeared. Perhaps he'd never truly believed in the first place. Or else he'd simply swapped one belief for another, loving neither God nor athiesm but ideology for its own sake--as he'd fallen in love not with a woman, but an image of one. [...] He supposed if he had a religion, the House was its temple, dedicated not to gods or ideas but living, fallible men."

In some sense, this struggle with faith is tied into the role of free will and choice.  The Golem longs to return to a world where she serves a master--her god, for want of a better word--and no longer has to suffer through the thoughts and longings of the world, yet she begins to realise that giving up her free will means giving up her self.  As she says,

''To be returned to that certainty! [...] 'In a way, I think it would be like dying. But perhaps it would be for the best. I make so many mistakes, on my own.'"

At the same time, it is in the Golem's nature to be satisfied with her lot, just as it is in the nature of the restless Jinni to always long for something more, something new.

'But I can't do whatever I want, so why dwell on it? It'll only make me angry.'

'And you'd rather blinker your own thoughts than be angry?'

In the end, it all comes down to the power of choice, yet the consequences of a single decision. If one makes the choice to give away free will, what happens to responsibility?  What happens to the self? 

As the Golem muses, when she considers the power that magic might give her:

 

"She could change him! She could make him content to stay in New York, content even with the life of a human. Would it not be a kindness, an act of love, to remove the haunted look from his eye, the bitterness from his voice? She would give him happiness, true happiness--such as she herself had once felt--

No.

[...] She would have bound the entire city, made them all into her golems, to satisfy her own need to be useful. She would have robbed the Jinni of himself, more thoroughly than the cuff on his wrist--he, who valued his freedom above all else."

(show spoiler)

The power of that one decision continues to reverberate throughout the story.  The whole story is so tightly woven, so strongly tied to the consequences of single moments, that in some sense, I think it loses some organic spontaneity.  However, I appreciate the art of such tightly interlocking subplots, such seamless welding of the characters' lives.

Death, of course, is one instance of a single, final choice with potentially terrible ramifications.

 

While it is the Golem who threatens suicide, it is the Jinni who attempts it.  Personally, I completely understood the Jinni's perspective and completely fail to understand what on earth plan #2 was supposed to achieve.  I do love the symmetry of the Jinni's attempt:

 

"'I forget sometimes,' he said, 'how different we are. I would never talk of destroying myself. It would feel too much like giving up.'

She wanted to ask, And there's nothing you would give yourself up for?"

(show spoiler)


Yet while these themes of choice and freedom are ever-present throughout the novel, the story itself, the characters, are beautiful and finely-wrought.  While many of the side characters are more roughly drawn and lightly shaded, the Golem and the Jinni, despite their lack of humanity, are complex and beautifully wrought.

It is an intricate tapestry of theme and setting and character, and truly as delicately beautiful as its cover.