Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wrecker, a book review by Panda

Apologies this review is late [it was really posted in December but the date is changed so that it will be organized under November]. I promise you I really did read this on time!

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wrecker, a book review.

I had really high hopes for this book. It was probably my most anticipated read of the year, but it let me down. This review will contain spoilers.

The Golem and the Jinni is an immigrant story – 1890s, respectively. A golem woman is made for a wifeless man by this creepy dude (a mystic ex-rabbi, if I remember correctly) and as her master takes her across the ocean he conveniently dies, leaving the golem masterless. The golem is quickly found by a nice rabbi who teaches her all the ways of humans (i.e. how to blend in). He conveniently dies later on as well, but thankfully only after he gets her a job somewhere.

But on to the Jinni. He is discovered/released by a metalworker fixing a flask. The jinni becomes the tinsmith’s apprentice because he can mould metal in his hands like putty. But this is not entirely a perfect arrangement. The jinni is trapped in human form and becomes restless with humankind. He meets a girl named Sophia and ends up having sex with her. I hated that part because it was just thrown in there. It was only to show that he wanted sex and would throw her away once he got bored with her. But I really didn’t understand why he would want sex with a human in the first place. (For example, he never has sex with the girl that gets him trapped in the flask in the first place – at least I don’t think so. He only wants to talk to her).

Sophia as a character could have been cut entirely because her role is useless despite the fact that Wrecker brings her back later on in the end to ‘save the day’ by inviting everyone to rest up at her house (after the Jinni tries to kill himself when he finds out his fate is tied to THE BAD GUY). It was an awkward non-twist.

The Jinni eventually meets the Golem about town. He and the golem decide to take walks each night because she is the only thing interesting to him and she doesn’t have anything else to do because she doesn’t sleep.

The Golem and the Jinni do not fit in well. The Jinni’s made up back story makes people suspicious and his temper gets him in trouble a lot. The Golem, since becoming masterless, can feel other peoples’ wants and desires and can therefore (basically) read their mind. She almost gives herself away a couple of times. They were very well-drawn characters and I fell in love with them. The Jinni is entertaining in everything he does – from the way he handles his cigarette to his flashbacks about how he came to be trapped in the first place (semi-spoilers: he makes a human girl fall in love with him and as he messes with her dreams he literally causes her to go mad – but not that he wanted that result, of course). And the Golem’s day-to-day experiences broke my heart. She could not sleep so she would take her clothes apart and then stitch them back together. She would play with her clay body – hedgehogging her arm by sticking pins in it just to see what would happen. I loved getting to know the characters more than the actual story.

Because then the story starts to lose its appeal. Wrecker introduces a quasi-handicap man who sells ice cream. He is an ex-doctor who is possessed by a demon and cannot look directly into peoples’ faces without seeing an empty void which scares him. His prestigious life had fallen apart because of it and so went to America to die. But he discovers that he can look at the Jinni’s face without being scared shitless and so follows him around. This ice cream man, Mahmoud Saleh, seemed like a sad ploy to introduce the three major Western religions. Because, well, he had a Muslim background. Let me explain: The Jinni is taken in by Syrian Christians. The Golem, of course, is Jewish. Of course we need a Muslim to complete the holy trinity here. UGH.

The ice cream man will later come back and save the day, but in reality his part could have been cut from the entire novel without making much of a dent. Saleh is not introduced until half the book is over. If Wrecker really wanted to make me care about him dying in the end then she would have called this book, The Golem, the Jinni, and the Demon-possessed. But she didn’t.  

Then, the Golem’s maker comes to America on a whim (on his search for immortality – which isn’t apparent until later on). The reader isn’t sure what drives him to come to the U.S. and neither is he. And of course he eventually finds his creation, but not before he charms his way into the heart of the Jewish community. At the beginning of the novel he’s really just this interesting (albeit sinister) magician-guy who is willing to make a Golem (for a price, of course). But then we are suddenly supposed to think of him as evil and it just doesn’t work. At the end, we find out that he’s the dude that trapped the jinni so long ago…but not exactly. He’s the reincarnated guy who originally trapped the jinni. Which made things a little confusing.

The reincarnation thing seemed a little far-fetched in the book because it was just thrown out there. There was nothing for the reader to have seen it coming and so it felt like cheating. The Golem-maker, Schaalman, apparently wanted to trap a jinni so he could command it and the curse somewhat backfired making him have to reincarnate himself as long as the jinni was alive.  

The Golem allows herself to be bound to Schaalman, her maker, which I found really stupid. At least plot-wise. I get that she is desperate to have a master, but she could have let ANYONE else be her master. She was suddenly very stupid to think Schaalman was the answer – especially since she had been contemplating destroying herself before (THAT would be the better answer).

But the issues continue: Instead of trapping the Jinni in the bottle, Saleh (the ice cream man) traps Schaalman. So, Schaalman cannot cause more trouble OR be reincarnated. YAY. But then again, he’s not dead. This is where things don’t make sense. Because, suddenly the Golem is herself (as if masterless) once more. But Schaalman is not dead. Her previous master had to die for her to be free. And even if Schaalman DID die, wouldn’t she still be bound to him because, oh I don’t know, he’d technically be reincarnated instantly and therefore she’d still be bound to him no matter what body he was in??????


This is why the book failed. Every qualm I had with it could have been overlooked if only the story had been properly thought out. It had so much potential. But it was wasted on this one overlooked plot point. It could have simply been fixed if the Golem hadn’t suddenly turned stupid and allowed her maker to become her master. It was so out of character in the first damn place. Honestly.

Other cons about the book: 100 pages into the novel, you are left wondering what the plot is. At first you think it could turn into a love story. But it doesn’t. It simply tries to be a statement on free will. Other reviews will also tell you this. But it is not so much a story about free will as it is about Freedom itself. Both characters have free will but very little freedom. I think this is a difference. If the story is about free will, then there are not many moral dilemmas faced. Though there was one: the Golem eventually marries a man because she is afraid to not serve someone. The human ends up being an asshole who didn’t deserve her, but I didn’t really see anything wrong with how the humans faired in all this. And it’s not like I could have identified with the Golem or the Jinni. Thus, my point is, all the free will issues addressed (if you can even call them free will issues) weren’t really that important. At best the Golem and Jinni’s journey is an example of outsiders’ perspectives looking in.  Humans are strange things. That is the only message you can get from this story, if you care to get one at all.  

Also, there is a side-story about a girl the Golem works with who gets pregnant. That whole bit could have been cut from the book. The only thing that you get out of it was that the Golem beats up the girl’s boyfriend when he won’t admit that he got the girl pregnant/marry her. The girl become fearful of the Golem yet is willing to help the Golem later on and it just didn’t make sense.

The book could have been cut in half. Wrecker knows how to set up a story, but not to follow through. She is good at beginnings but not middle and ends. She is very good a writing at the sentence level, though her thematic elements are little above average.

I also take issue with the fact that a 500-paged book was published as first novel and that Wrecker apparently had an agent for this book before it was finished (Sam Stoloff apparently “encouraged [her] to write this novel almost from its conception”), leading me to suspect nepotism. Also, my copy says the LC in-publication-data has been applied for, making me think this was a rush job. Maybe they shouldn’t have rushed through it, obviously.

Pros about the book: It was one of the better books of 2013 and was a literary historical ADULT fantasy. You don’t get a book like this every day. I’m proud of the publishing industry to produce a book like this. It was like looking at an Edmund Dulac piece. I just wish it had been thought through. Also, it is pretty open to a sequel and I wouldn’t be surprised if another one was made. Maybe there is a chance my cons with the book will be addressed. Also, this would make an excellent movie – especially if they reworked the plot.

Overall grade: 83%. (B-)


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