Diverse | Whimsical | Enchanting
Legends. Heroes. Magic. Who doesn’t love them in a story, especially in one written by the wonderful Helen Wecker? She has created a very realistic fairy-tale for adults that leaves you wanting more.
The story follows two main characters who appear to be very ordinary but are undeniably extraordinary. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, created for a young man by a dishonourable rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. His intentions were merely to have a wife who is curious, intelligent but always ready to fulfill the wishes of her master. However, en route to a new life in America, the young man falls sick and dies at sea and the golem finds herself unmoored and alone in 1899 New York, without a master to follow.
In Lower Manhattan, a tinsmith comes across an old copper flask and accidentally frees a centuries old djinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. A Bedouin wizard trapped Ahmad in the flask centuries ago and although he is no longer imprisoned, he is not entirely free – a iron cuff binds him to the physical world and traps him in the form of a human.
Chava and Ahmad both face their own challenges, mainly to keep their identity a secret and as the story progresses and they finally meet, we are introduced to a wonderful relationship full of depth and emotions far more remarkable than the magic that makes them who they are.
First things first, I need to point out that this book is more character-driven than anything else and not really action packed until the last couple of pages. This was actually quite effective because it allowed for a more in-depth analysis of the characters and for the reader to connect with them on a very personal level. However there is this feeling of foreboding seeping between the pages that added a sense of urgency to the story; this nagging fear of pursuit; a man with intentions far from pure on the hunt for a magical trail that will ultimately lead him to the jinni. And this fills you with apprehension that could only be alleviated when you’re certain that both characters are safe and sound.
“All of us are lonely at some point or another, no matter how many people surround us. And then, we meet someone who seems to understand. She smiles, and for a moment the loneliness disappears.”
The story takes place at the end of the 19th centaury, during a time when people were trying to make their dreams come true by travelling to New York. This setting was without doubt extremely fascinating. It focused on life back then in New York City, where ethnic based communities still congregated together and continued to share the same values and customs despite being in a new country. The author provided such in-depth detail about the Jewish and Syrian communities that made the story even more authentic. It was refreshing to read about these different people, their morals and beliefs, a topic I don’t usually meet in other books.
The two main characters represent in a way two immigrants who are trying to build a new life, learn the different values and ultimately trying to fit in. There was also the added factor of them being supernatural beings and seeing these two characters with different cultural backgrounds trying to fit in not only in a different community but also amongst humans. Wecker took advantage of this by tackling various moral and philosophical issues. Various questions were raised about the complexity of human nature: why there is a great need for religion, slavery and free-will and why people often put themselves in the face of peril for the sake of sexual gratification. This was also very interesting to read from the perspective of both the golem and the djinni. Chava was only a few days old before she was introduced into the world and she did not have any knowledge about humans. Ahmad on the other hand was centuries old but his ideas were quite biased and inaccurate (quite understandable though considering how he was imprisoned by one!).
“He’d lived so long in anticipation of his own death that to contemplate his future was like standing at the edge of a cliff, staring into a vertiginous rush of open sky.”
The book introduced a multitude of characters with each new chapter that I admit was very confusing at times, however as the story progressed they all converged together until one eventually learns how everyone is connected. You might think that certain details about secondary characters were quite unnecessary but believe me when I say that even the most obscure ice-cream seller had an important role to the story. The beautiful way in which everyone became connected was honestly breath taking and one of the things that I enjoyed most in this book.
The writing is so beautiful, whimsical and stunning. It transported me back to 19th century New York and made my reading experience a thousand times more magical and extraordinary. Wecker managed to combine folklore elements from two different cultures in one story and used them to question various philosophical issues while simultaneously providing an otherworldly aspect to a historical setting. Also, the perfect characterization in the novel gave the two main characters such humanly qualities that they read like actual people rather than supernatural beings.
There is going to be a sequel for this book called The Iron Season. While I’m a bit apprehensive (second book syndrome and all that) I would love to reunite with my favorite characters and experience once again the magic that is Wecker’s writing.
This is a perfect fantasy book, with complex characters, beautiful writing and a wonderful historical setting. I highly recommend it!
- Genre: Adult, Fantasy, Historical Fiction
- Edition: Published March 1st 2014 by Blue Door (First published April 1st 2013)
- Pages: 656