Reviewed June 19, 2013.
Harper, 2013. 486 pages. Starred Review
2013 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Fiction
I had brought this book back to the library, figuring I'd never get around to reading it, so I should give other people a chance. I made the mistake of looking inside to get the flavor of it -- and was instantly hooked. I brought it back home and bypassed all of my plans and made it the next novel I read.
Here's the first paragraph:
The Golem's life began in the hold of a steamship. The year was 1899; the ship was the Baltika, crossing from Danzig to New York. The Golem's master, a man named Otto Rotfeld, had smuggled her aboard in a crate and hidden her among the luggage.
The beginning talks about how Rotfeld decided he wanted a wife and turned to Schaalman, a disgraced rabbi who dabbled in the Kabbalistic arts. Here's a warning Schaalman gives to Rotfeld:
"The results may not be as precise as you might wish. One can only do so much with clay." Then his face darkened. "But remember this. A creature can only be altered so far from its basic nature. She'll still be a golem. She'll have the strength of a dozen men. She'll protect you without thinking, and she'll harm others to do it. No golem has ever existed that did not eventually run amok. You must be prepared to destroy her."
But Rotfeld dies during the passage to America, shortly after waking the Golem. With no master, she hears the desires and wishes of everyone around her. Terribly distracted in New York City, she meets a rabbi who knows what she is and helps her pass for human.
Nearby, in the neighborhood of Lower Manhattan called Little Syria, a tinsmith is working to repair an old flask and releases a jinni. The Jinni doesn't remember the last several hundred years. Last he knew, he was in the Syrian desert, paying more attention to humans than other jinn said was good for him.
The Jinni, too, must pass for human in New York City. He works for the tinsmith who released him. Made of fire, he can heat and mold metal with his bare hands. But he's not willing to merely stay in the shop.
Both the Golem and the Jinni become restless, since, after all, they don't have to spend their nights sleeping like the humans around them. They both can instantly see that the other is not the human they are pretending to be.
Even though it's a very different story, this book reminded me of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, with a world so much like ours, but with these magical deviations. As in that book, the characters are deeply explored and all the implications of the world built are lived out.
The Golem lives among Jews and the Jinni among Syrians, but they find each other and change each other's lives and outlook. Eventually, they discover a surprising connection between them, a connection that could mean their destruction.
This book captivated me all the way along. It explores what it means to be human, as we look at these two creatures passing as human: one made of clay, and one made of fire.