I’d seen this book around, and I knew it had gotten some good reviews and won some awards. I wasn’t in much of a rush to get to it, but then I realized it would be a good fit for a final project in a Myth and Folklore in Literature class that I have coming up, starting in about a week, and I’m not about to put a book on a list of options for a final project unless I’ve read it myself. Reading project for the weekend I told myself. I finished The Golem and the Jinni in an evening.
Using the setting of turn of the 20th century New York City was pretty smart, since it allows for all kinds of immigrant cultures to mix, which is at the core of the story since the Golem belongs to Hebrew legend, and the Jinni to Arabian. Both arrive bound to humanity but not currently to a specific individual, and both try to find new masters. In the process both are lucky enough to start out allied with decent individuals whose basic instincts are to help. Eventually both start to develop some personality and individuality. Then they run into each other.
Their actual meeting doesn’t happen until halfway through the book, which in a way is a small shame. The Jinni is a fire-spirit, and the Golem is based in Earth, so their natures are different, but their situations are similar. Being the only others of their sort in a community of other others enables some interesting existential discussion. The people around the two and their various situations are both individual to each character yet eventually everyone ends up connected. Everyone has their own problems and hidden secrets too, but by the end most is cleared up and resolved, although in several cases this happens by death and/or not a happy resolution.
It took me a little while to get into the story and the characters, but then suddenly I couldn’t put the book down. I think it was Arbeely and Rabbi Meyer who really got me hooked, and these two appear off and on throughout much of the rest of the story. There’s quite a few characters who get drawn into the plot, but they’re each so different from each other with their own histories and hopes that they don’t’ get mixed up or forgotten.
I was also a little surprised by how not too annoying the reflections on faith, self, and morality (which are frequent) remained, and how well suited to the characters and stories they were. The same goes for the melodrama, of which there is a good amount. Normally, this is why I tend to avoid a lot of popular general fiction; I don’t have much patience for personal tragedy/relationship drama getting in the way of story, but here it just works.
The one thing that bothered me a little was that a few questions ended up unclear as to what happened or why in a few instances towards the end. Once all the various plot threads are coming together and the climactic final scene is building, either I missed some important little details or some reasons and events really aren’t described with clarity. Especially given how it affects the ending, I really wish what happened with Saleh and Schaalman was clearer. The other slight problem was that there’s a tendency in the narrative for characters to die when they seem to become too much of an obstacle, and it happens just often enough that it’s a noticeable plot device.
Complaints aside, I hope someone in this upcoming class decides to take this novel on.