The Golem and the Djinni, Helene Wecker‘s debut novel, is a story of two strangers who find themselves with new lives against their wishes. It does tread the ground of old stories in a new land but does update it.
Otto Rotfeld asks for a perfect wife to be built, a Golem. Smuggled aboard a ship to the United States, the Golem is brought to life just as Rotfeld dies and has to find a way of making her own life. Taken in by a kindly Rabbi, she begins working in a bakery, hiding her true nature, and mimicking those around her. Taking the name Chava, she builds her own life in the community.
Meanwhile, Arbeely is given a lamp to repair and polishes it, allowing the Djinni to escape, though still bound by iron in human form. Learning a new trade, the Djinni calls himself Ahmad and makes a life in the small community, occasionally venturing into the larger city of New York. His metal work becomes known for its intricacy.
There is a story of hiding in plain site, of mimicking the world around them to continue their lives. The magical beings stay in their community and draw from them. Although there are some individuals who recognise them for what they really are, they are mostly seen as members of the community.
Wecker appears to be having a dialogue on two levels: how do immigrants become accepted into a community and how does the mythology translate? Unlike Neil Gaiman in American Gods where the tales live somewhat precipitous lives that owe their power to those who still remember them, let alone believe in them, Wecker’s fantastical beings join in the bazaar of stories. Any cycle of renewal has been broken. Her argument differs though in that Gaiman’s old gods fundamentally remain the same, waiting for their cycle to begin again but Wecker’s appear to change to the new circumstances. They learn to enjoy the uncertainty of their new lives and to accept that changes has happened. The Djinni fights this most all until he returns to his old life, realising what is lost and what might be gained.
There is a sense that Chava finds her own life on the voyage, apart from the literal magical awakening; that she is most able to define herself in spite of herself. Perhaps she never fully shakes off the idea of having a master but one wonders if she is stronger than the Djinni. Less flighty and volatile, she is grounded in the harsher realities of living the life that is there than the one to be dreamed about. Having fewer illusions of the world, she makes her own space and gains respect for that.
Wecker avoids the easy fairy tale ending: we see the slice of coming to the States but no further. There is an immigration strand to the novel that I do not fully understand but equally she looks at the notion of how the fantastic might thrive in a foreign land. It dies not change but becomes immersed or reflective of slightly altered customs. These are not cowed not bold and brash entities but rather ones that get on with it. Engaging and passionate, Wecker has an eye for the strange that is this side of romantic. There are issues that she does not engage with but what she does bring to the discussion is way of moving forward. She breaks those with illusions that the old world was any better than this with aplomb, reminding the reader that it is the same world where ever we are. It is what we and the stories make of it that really counts.