I had planned on writing a full review of Helene Wecker's fantasy novel The Golem and the Jinni but before I could get to it, I discovered a terrific review by Susann Cokal at the NYT. It pretty much said everything (and much more elegantly I think) that I was thinking about the novel. So let me be brief here. Buy the novel. You will love it. And here are two reasons (among many) why I found it so remarkable.
1. The two most important characters are both fantastic creatures -- 1) a newly "born to life" Golem in the form of a young woman who almost immediately becomes master-less, and whose only purpose is to serve the needs of humans around her (imagine the din of those endless requests) and 2) a 2,000 year old entirely self absorbed, amoral Syrian Jinni, recently freed from a long captivity in a brass bottle. Both are immigrants to NYC in the very late 19th century. The novel turns on how these two compelling creatures come to recognize each other across a huge city of immigrants, and learn how to adapt as their interaction with human beings change them in unexpected ways. It is about discovering the self (even when the self is a complicated, fantastic creature) and discovering the possibilities of life in radically new context. Their philosophical conversations (and fights) alone are worth reading the novel.
2. I also love novels that make the setting into a character in the book. Here is the fullness of a New York in 1899, a patchwork of immigrant neighborhoods -- each one distinct in community, foods, smells, houses of worship, tenements, and shops. Wecker renders in rich and evocative details all these different neighborhoods -- from the Jewish neighborhoods, the Christian Syrian enclaves, the bakeries, the docks and its desperate immigrants, the glittering dance halls, a luminous Central Park, the wealthy homes up the upper west side, and the poverty of the Bowery -- complete with almost mirror version of the city on the tenement roof tops.
And I should mention too that Wecker's prose is wonderful -- deliberate, clean, and elegant .Really, trust me. You will not be disappointed.