This review contains spoilers.
Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni brings together two supernatural creatures in New York City, late 19th century: Chava, a golem created as the perfect wife for a Jewish man from Poland, who promptly dies during the passage to America; and Ahmad, a djinni bound to human form who’s been shut up in an oil flask for centuries and is unwittingly released by a Syrian metalsmith.
Although they assimilate into communities that are completely separate – in fact, Wecker hints at actual animosity – their mutual loneliness, supernatural beings trying to pass as human in a city full of eyes, brings them together. It’s no great surprise when this evolves, eventually, into romance (although not before both of them have embarked on other romantic entanglements with humans). In the best traditions of romance, the novel is interested in harmonising elements of society that are at odds, bringing together worldviews that oppose each other: so while Chava is prudent, compliant, supportive of her friends and hyper-aware of the needs of those around her (literally; she’s been designed to be telepathic), Ahmad is self-involved, hedonistic and resentful of the restrictions belonging to a community places on him. Their relationship is thus ultimately about finding a middle way, about compromise: the kind of compromise that is necessary in any multicultural city, and in any romantic relationship.
So far, so schematic. But: why does The Golem and the Djinni need to be fantasy? Abigail Nussbaum asks the same question in her review of the novel for Strange Horizons:
…would the novel had [sic] been any worse, or even that different, if the cover stories concocted by its protagonists and their guardians were actually true, if Chava had been a young, naive Jewish widow newly arrived in New York City, and Ahmad a headstrong, self-absorbed Bedouin happy to take his pleasures where he could and not think about what they cost others?*
I agree with her assessment that the use of the fantastic allows Wecker to write a fairytale of New York (ha), rather than a warts-and-all representation of what life there was really like at the turn of the twentieth century; and that the novel’s epic fantasy ending does too much violence to the sepia-tinted melancholy of the rest of the tale, generating too easy a conclusion for Our Protagonists. In fact, the general trend of the novel is towards simplification: the fairytale quality of the text, charming as it is, demands clarity, a moral, a single meaning, from a novel that wants to be capable of multitudes. For instance, the novel is interested in the constriction of female lives and desires in history. It shows us several women who are at the mercy of men, who cannot be all they want to be because society prevents it. Chava herself is driven nearly to the brink of a disastrous breakdown because to pass as a respectable woman she must restrict herself to specific domestic activities. And yet, one of the key questions that drives the novel is: who will Chava end up with? And so the text itself does the violence it describes. And not with cute self-awareness, either.
I don’t think that Wecker’s sepia-tinted nostalgia is, in itself, a bad quality for a novel like this to have; it’s just that The Golem and the Djinni is muddled and unsure of its project. Its melancholy doesn’t work with the clear-cut, schematic lessons it asks us to take away. It is neither complex enough nor simple enough to work properly – ironically enough, it strives for a middle way, a compromise. Compromises hold people together, but they sabotage novels. I liked Wecker’s book, but it’s not one I’ll remember.