Golem and Jinni

^z 19th December 2023 at 2:47pm

Helene Wecker's first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, is magical fantastical fun, a fast 400+ page romp. In style and setting — New York City at the turn-of-the-century (1899, that is) — it echoes Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, though Wecker's prose is less ornate. A sample description, from Chapter 7 where one of the protagonists discovers Central Park:

Across from the station rose a wall of greenery. A high iron fence ran along it, as though to hold back something wild. There was a wide gap in the middle of the fence, and Sixth Avenue disappeared inside, curving around and out of sight. A steady stream of pedestrians and carriages came and went. He crossed the street and passed inside.

Almost immediately the sounds of traffic faded away, were replaced by a descending hush. A grove of trees edged the path on both sides, turning the air cool and heavy. Gravel crunched under his shoes. Open carriages ambled past, the horses' hooves beating a pleasant rhythm. Smaller paths broke away from either side of the carriage road, some wide and paved, others little more than dirt tracks overhung with lush vegetation.

Soon the shading grove came to an end, and the land opened into a vast swath of rolling lawn. The Jinni stopped, stunned by the vivid sea of green. Trees bordered its far edges, shielding the city from view. In the middle of the lawn, a herd of plump, dusky-white sheep stood peacefully together, eating lazy mouthfuls of grass. Benches lined the road, and here and there people sat, in pairs or threes or the occasional solitary gentleman—though women were never alone in public, he had noticed this—and watched the carriages go by.

He stepped off the path and walked about in the grass for a few moments, feeling the earth give and spring back. He bounced on the balls of his feet, unaware of the smile that rose to his lips. Briefly he considered abandoning the path altogether, and walking the length of the lawn, perhaps without his shoes; but then he spied a small sign staked into the ground that read PLEASE STAY TO THE PATH. And indeed, a few passersby were frowning at him in admonishment. He thought the rule absurd but had no wish to be noticed. So he stepped back onto the path, vowing to return at night, when hopefully he could do as he liked.

The carriage road branched away east, and the Jinni followed its curve over a pretty wooden bridge. Through a copse of tall trees he spied a long, straight path of shining gray-white. He left the road to investigate, and the gray-white path revealed itself as a broad promenade of flagstone, lined with high, arching trees. There were more people here than on the carriage path, but the scale of the space was so grand that he took little notice of the crowd. Children ran past, and one boy's hoop went rolling away from him, tilting across the Jinni's path. Startled, he plucked it from the stones and gave it back to the boy, who ran to catch up with his fellows. The Jinni continued on, wondering about the function of the hoop.

Eventually the broad walk descended into a tunnel that cut beneath a carriage road. On the other side of the tunnel, a broad plaza of red brick curved along the shore of a pond. In the middle of the plaza he saw what he took at first for an enormous winged woman, floating above a foaming cascade of water. No, not a woman—a sculpture of a woman, perched atop a pedestal. The water flowed into a wide, shallow basin at her feet, and then into a pool that stretched almost the width of the plaza.

Smooth yet evocative language, with quiet depth and sparkle, as the protagonists see new worlds through fresh eyes. The Golem and the Jinni has plot, though as the narrative progresses it becomes rather contrived. Its characters are startling, archetypal, intriguing. Its atmosphere delights and surprises. Its titular "technology" — woman of earth, man of fire — form a yin-yang pair. Neat meets chaotic: works well.

^z - 2016-06-10