The Golem and the Djinni – Helene Wecker

This week (I wrote most of this post immediately after the last one… then got distracted) has been a good week for judging books by their covers. Following on from A Natural History of Dragons, The Golem and the Djinni was also chosen at least partially for its looks (and also for its greater size than aNHoD for the same price). And I have to admit, it is a beautiful thing.  The picture doesn’t really do it justice, as the colours look a bit washed out, but in person, it is rather fabulous. Something about the combination of colours and the fonts… I don’t know. It did help that, as I happened to glance across at it on my desk at work, I noticed that my work pass lanyard was precisely the same shade of orange as the author’s name. It looked very neat.

Less pleasing is the American cover. To me, it just looks a bit naff, to be honest. Like one of those books that get published on Kindle for free or 79p, and you get the impression the author spent 40 minutes on MS Paint, carefully cropping something they found on a Google image search. I’m sure you know the ones I mean.  Not that I have a great love of American covers generally, it has to be said. But given that the thing that honestly drew me to buy the book was how goddamn pretty it was, it seems a shame that that just isn’t true of some of the other versions.

Oh and something about the spelling “jinni” just makes me twitch. They’re both legitimate transliterations from Arabic, as far as I’m aware, but I’m just used to the version with the “d”. Probably Jonathan Stroud’s fault.

Veering swiftly away from my anti-American aesthetic ramblings, the actual contents of the book are just as satisfying as the (English) cover. It’s not an exciting book, it’s not thrilling and fast-paced with rooftop chase scenes, or a particular moving emotional book. Much like Sailing to Sarantium, in fact, it has a sort of quiet calm to it, even in those parts where many things are occurring. It just feels measured and precise and neatly ordered, and you finish it with a sense of satisfaction. I like that, occasionally. It was definitely what I was in the mood for here.

One of the recommendations on the cover is that “readers of the Night Circus will love it” and I think that is as neat an encapsulation of the book as I could hope for – it has a lot of the Night Circus’ charm and elegance, especially in pace, as well as the knowledge of how to do something understated (*cough* romance in the Night Circus*cough*) instead of going for melodrama. The stories are completely different, but there is something in the writing style and in the painstaking eloquence that draws a line between the two.

The story of the Golem and the Djinni is about two relics of the old world – a golem, the product of an Jewish sorcerer’s art, and a djinni, trapped for a thousand years by a Bedouin wizard – travelling to America and starting new lives. For all the action and plot that goes on, there is enough in the stories of their growing to live among humans and live as humans, as best they can, for a wonderful book on its own. The two, Chava and Ahmad, are very quickly and firmly explained as being of completely different natures. Chava is, as a golem, of earth, and made for obedience to her master. Ahmad is a spirit of the air and fire, above all else craving freedom and the ability to pursue his wants without impediment. Their friendship, and the tempering of their natures by the presence of their opposite, is the real wonder of the book, seeing them learn from each other and come to see how they need both sides to live among humans.

I feel like I’m getting a bit overly sentimental about this. Ahem.

They are beautifully written characters though – the way the author flips between Chava and Ahmad, and back to Ahmad’s past, showing us how they both are missing something that they need to make them complete, but also how they both are products of their inherent nature, and so alien to humanity that how could they possibly ever hope to fit in… well she definitely knew what she was doing.

Behind Chava and Ahmad, the humans of the book sort of fade into the background. They both live in different communities in New York, the Jewish and the Catholic, and those communities are painted beautifully too, but with the loveliness of the leads, you can’t help but skim over even the most poignant of supporting cast… and by god some of them are pretty poignant. Even the baddy has plenty about him that, as you read more, makes you feel for him as a person* (follow the asterisk for spoilery thoughts). But much though you feel for them, they don’t seem as real and meaningful as the non-human characters. Which is, I guess, the whole point.

In essence, the book does an amazing job of making you think really hard about the experiences of two people who have to try so much more than anyone else to fit into the world of normal people, and to feel really deeply for their struggles. The fantasy-ness of it sort of slips into the background, and it becomes a beautiful, carefully written, slow and thoughtful book about humanity. And I loved it.

 

Here be spoilers:

*The thing about the baddy that really gets me is how his faults and skills are, so much like Ahmad’s and Chava’s, tied to his nature. Because he is a reincarnation of the same spirit, over and over again, you can’t help but feel a little sympathy for him, as his path leads him down the same tortured routes over and over again – like he too is alien to the humanity around him, slave to his nature rather than blessed with free will. I think that’s what really makes Chava, Ahmad and Yehudah stand out against the backdrop of humanity – the people around them make conspicuous, sometimes surprising choices, that go against what you expect of them. They exercise their free will in wonderful ways. But it is so clear for so much of the book that, for the most part, Ahmad and Chava are bound by what they are, as well as who, and so are cursed to be unable to escape their natures. Their quest to fit into the humans around them is a war of their conscious will against the dominance of what they are – and it is incredibly moving. And then you have Yehudah – who gives in to his nature completely, who relishes it and accepts it, and is so much the worse for it. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, to be honest. But that. Those are my thoughts.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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