Novel weaves mythical tale with folklore elements

I’m a big fan of the science-fiction and fantasy genres, but it’s often difficult to find well-written books in either style. Enter author Helene Wecker.

I was thrilled to discover Wecker’s New York Times best-seller, “The Golem and the Jinni” (HarperCollins, 2013), which combines science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction.

Wecker weaves a beautiful tale set largely in New York City in the late 1890s, with several forays into the Syrian desert in the Middle East. What an astonishing and sophisticated piece of storytelling from the first-time author.

In Jewish folklore, a “golem” is a person made of clay created to serve a single master. Golems are immensely strong and programmed to slavishly devote themselves to the interests of their masters. In Wecker’s book, a powerful evil sorcerer creates a female golem for Rotfeld, a lonely Polish man, to accompany Rotfeld to America as his wife.

In contrast to golems, western views of a “jinni,” or genie, are rather at odds with the spiritual creatures of Arabic folklore. A jinni is a magical creature made of fire. Their characters can be evil or good, and while they may pop out of jars or lamps, they do not necessarily grant wishes. Wecker’s jinni has at times in his long life been good and very bad – and do not even think of asking him for a wish or two.

In 1899, a golem named Chava and a jinni named Ahmad meet in the poor section of New York called Little Syria, now lower Manhattan. They are both immigrants struggling with how to act human and learning to assimilate in America. Their lives are a rich tapestry of fears, sorrows and joys as they interact with the many beautifully drawn characters who inhabit their world – friends, bosses, lovers and mentors.

Danger lurks, too, in the form of a common enemy. But most of all, both characters struggle to understand themselves: What do they want from life in a strange country, and how can they overcome their basic instincts to find happiness?

“The Golem and the Jinni” would appeal to readers who liked “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday, 2011) and anyone who enjoys a bit of magic in their literature. The book crosses numerous genres and would be an ideal selection for any type of book club.

Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.

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