Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book review: The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

Fantasy and magic realism meet myth, religious diversity and an explosion of cultural metropolis in this delightful and beautifully rendered earth-meets-fire tale.

Disclaimer: This review also appears on Women24.com, a South African women's lifestyle website where I manage, amongst other things, an online books section. 
 
The Golem and the Djinni (Blue Door)

Book comparisons are rather dangerous.

And yet, as a bibliophile, I often find myself unable to resist the allure of finding a new book that’s been touted as being along the same vein as another read; especially if that book just so happens to be one of my favourites.

In this case, the book that The Golem and the Djinni was (and is) being compared to, is The Night Circus.

Now, if you are a fan of fantasy and magic realism and haven’t read The Night Circus before, I would highly recommend that you do.

It’s one of the most magnificent novels I’ve read to date, and one I can’t wait to see adapted to film (despite my ambivalence towards book-to-movie adaptations in general).

The fantastical imagery brought to life under Erin Morgenstern’s hands, the beautiful and intriguing concept of life on the road and in a travelling circus, and at its heart, the two magicians whose magnificent and magical creations form the heart and soul of their forbidden love story - it’s truly a feast for the senses.

See, with a comparison to a book like that, you can hardly blame me for taking a chance on The Golem and the Djinni, can you?

I’m ridiculously glad that I did though, because Helene Wecker’s debut novel is an absolute gem of a read; one that sucks you in like a sandstorm in the desert.

Bear in mind that though this book is compared to Morgenstern’s Night Circus, The Golem and the Djinni, while similar in genre style, does not try to be its carbon copy.

While you certainly have to suspend your disbelief, as most magic realism novels compel you to (this is what I love most about these kind of novels), The Golem and the Djinni has a more languid, subtle and earthy tone to it than the overt and fantastical imagery featured in The Night Circus.

With its rich blend of Syrian mythology and incorporation of ancient and dark Kabbalistic magic; juxtaposed with a bustling and emerging 1890s concrete jungle New York, The Golem and the Djinni has both an energetic, cosmopolitan vibe and an Arabian Nights feel to it.

The contrast is incredibly interesting, and combined with two strongly developed mythic creatures from two different time spans, is one that works phenomenally well.

Our story begins on the shores of Poland when a young man, who desires a wife, approaches a Rabbi who dabbles in the ancient art of dark and mystical Kabbalistic magic and requests that he models and constructs a wife for him.

What results in this endeavour is a being of clay brought to life – Chava, the golem.

Unfortunately for him, he doesn't get the chance to acquaint himself with his new wife as he succumbs to illness while aboard the ship.

With no husband and master to care for, Chava is left unmoored, with no anchor to guide her and faces an unknown future in a world that is completely foreign to her.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Manhattan, a tinsmith, upon fixing a copper flask, discovers that djinni’s are real and that this one, whom we quickly come to know as Ahmed, although freed from the flask, is trapped in his human form.

Inevitably the two beings, one borne of clay and the other borne of fire, cross paths one night, and against all odds, a tentative friendship begins.

However, natures are hard to hide, and one evening's festivities soon leads to an inevitable separation.

Trying to move on, but unable to forget, both force themselves to go about their daily tasks, hoping against hope to find a way to forget in the humdrum of everyday life.

Only when a dark force at hand threatens their very livelihood, are Chava and Ahmed thrown together once again and are forced to make a decision that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

The Golem and the Djinni is one of my favourite reads of 2013.

It's lush in its intensity, magnetic in its descriptions of Jewish and Syrian myth and makes for an utterly compelling read that burns with a slow force; building up to a crescendo that makes this book impossible to put down.

If you're a fan of fast-paced reads which feature action sequences that begin from the get-go, you'll probably find yourself a little frustrated with this read.

I won't lie; the book does take a while to build-up to certain events - mainly the moment when Ahmed and Chava meet for the first time - but I believe that Wecker's purpose here was to provide us with a back-story, peppered with interesting mythological snippets that eventually coalesce to form that "Oh now I understand" moment.

The way Ahmed's origins and history are unravelled in particular, is one of my favourite aspects of my book.

Helene's description of Bedouin culture, combined with djinni lore will have you begging for more info about life in the desert, and have you wishing that you had your own palace in the heart of a harsh and often unyielding environment.

Never thought I'd say that, but that's definitely a testimony as to just how much I enjoyed this read.

Ahmed and Chava are two incredibly fascinating characters. The two couldn't be more different; Ahmed insolent, arrogant and far too impulsive and attractive for his own good, while Chava is demure, cautious and serious in comparison.

The reason for her seriousness we soon discover is that as a golem, she has to constantly fight the urge against the desires, wishes and wants of other people.

Created originally for this purpose (which would have been included in her wifely duties), you can't help but empathise with her when she forces herself to fight against her very nature.

It's this that makes her the perfect balance to Ahmed's impetuousness. She reigns him in and teaches him to think beyond the now, while he in turn, teaches her to give in to a bit of impulse every now and then.

Their budding romantic relationship if one can go as far as to call it that, is incredibly subtle and one that takes a backseat to the events that occur at the forefront.

The two are connected in more ways than one and the dark magic that hovers around them, is one that adds an immensely spellbinding aspect to their lives.

The supporting characters in this novel also add a colourful and culturally diverse flavour to the novel, while the antagonist and his deviousness (I wish I could add more, but that would only spoil things for you) will have you mentally shouting at the characters to get as far away from him as possible.

If you're a fan of Aladdin (I'm singing Arabian Nights in my head as I'm typing this), earthy desert settings and not-often-enough explored mythology, then The Golem and the Djinni is a book that you need to add to your to-read list.

It's simply mesmerising.

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