Completed 4/16/2014, Reviewed 4/28/2014
What do you get when you drop two Old World mythological creatures in the ethnic ghettos of 1899 Manhattan and try assimilate them into the existing culture? You get a beautifully written study of the immigrant experience at the height of the influx of new peoples into the US, with a little magic and superpower thrown in for fun.
A jinni is trapped in a lamp for centuries. The lamp finds its way to Little Syria in New York City at the turn of the 19th century. A metalworker tries to make some minor repairs to the lamp, releasing the jinni, who has no memory of why and to whom he is bound. The tinsmith offers him a place to stay and work in his shop, and tries to help the jinni control his powers and temper so as not to stand out in their ethnic ghetto.
At the same time, a European Jewish man employs a sinister rabbi to create the perfect wife for him, in the form of a golem. The man doesn’t bring the golem to life until they are aboard a ship bound for America. The man dies, and the golem is left masterless as she lands at Ellis Island. A friendly, old rabbi befriends her and tries to help her suppress her superhuman strength and perceptions and assimilate into their ghetto. The two eventually meet, first becoming each other’s confidantes, and then friends, trying to find their place in the New World.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the prose. The book is gorgeously written. It has the same feel as some of my favorite works, such as Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” and Clifford D. Simak’s “Way Station”. Wecker evokes not only the look of the ethnic gettos at the turn of 19th century New York City, but also their insular feel. Sprinkled throughout the book, you also learn the back story of how the jinni was captured by an evil wizard and trapped in the lamp. The descriptions of the desert, the nomads, and his glass palace are simply stunning.
The characters are also incredibly realized. The golem, Chava, is introverted, afraid of people, and afraid of herself. She is made of clay and has superhuman strength. She only wants to sink into the background noise of the Jewish community. Ahmed, the jinni, is a being of fire and magic. He wants freedom, to be and go as he wishes, regardless of the consequences. They make an unlikely pair, but find comfort in that they are both ancient supernatural creatures in a strange, modern place. Although the two are filled magic and power, it’s the human connection between the two that fleshes these characters out so well.
The supporting characters are also wonderful. The sinister rabbi is, using one of my favorite phrases, deliciously evil. The other rabbi, in contrast, is marvelously kind, a counterpoint to the evil one. And the ghettos are populated with other colorful characters that breathe life into the setting.
Besides the story of assimilation at the turn of the century, it is also about a relationship between Arab and Jew. The author acknowledges that there’s some of her relationship with her husband in Chava and Ahmed. It doesn’t go into the details of the modern conflict between the two peoples. More generally, it shows the challenges in understanding between two people who basically come from the same place, but with two very different perspectives.
When I first saw this book on the shelves of the bookstore I was immediately drawn to it. When I bought it, I was trying to finish an 800 page monster of a book. It took me so long to get to it, I was worried I was building too much anticipation and would be terribly disappointed. I wasn’t. It was everything I hoped it would be. This was my most satisfying read so far this year. 5 stars