It is 1899 and immigration to New York City is at its height. Not all newcomers, though, are as they seem. Chava is a golem. A creature made from clay, life breathed in to her through spells, binding her to the man who wakes her. But upon being woken aboard the ship sailing from the old world her husband dies, leaving her as alone as one ever could be in a foreign world. On docking, she jumps into the sea and walks to the city underneath the water, dragging seaweed wrapped round her boots. She finds refuge of a sort with a kindly, elderly rabbi and she becomes part of the New York Jewish community, endlessly working, baking and sewing, never needing to sleep or eat, quietly searching for a purpose.
Across the city, Ahmad awakes. He is a creature of fire, a djinni born in the Syrian desert hundreds and hundreds of years before, able to take many forms, but trapped in a brass flask by a wizard of immense evil powers. Ahmad is freed from the flask by a metalworker but an iron band around his wrist enslaves him in human form. He works for the metalworker, heating the metal with his bare hands, becoming a part of the Christian community of New York. Ahmad also never sleeps, instead he explores by night this magical city, protecting himself with an umbrella from the rain that would quench his spirit.
The Golem and the Djinni is a remarkable novel, haunting and mesmerising with the most beautiful prose and alive with perfectly drawn characters, including the character of New York City itself. What a place it would have seemed to the immigrants of the earliest 20th century, and its strangeness and wonder is intensified as we witness it through the eyes and experiences of two beings from another world entirely. Much of the novel leisurely follows Chava and Ahmad’s explorations of the new world, while each tries to come to terms with their own curious and alien lot. Their separate lives are shown to be very different. Chava is newly born and she is a complete innocent, an endearing, earnest and serious figure, trying to please while all too aware that in one flash of rage she could crush the life out of a human being with one grip of her clay arms. Ahmad, by contrast, is ancient. Wise in some ways and naive in others, he knows enough and is confident enough to embrace his new surroundings, finding pleasure in the arms of a rich American beauty. But when the djinni and the golem encounter each other, their night walks together through the city give them both a new focus. But forces have followed them from the old world and the result is likely to be catastrophic.
While the heart of the novel is full with Chava and Ahmad, moving backwards and forwards between the two, there is even more to the novel. There is a full cast of characters from all walks of life in New York City, bringing the streets, houses, parks, ports and businesses to life. With them there is an array of stories, some quite trivial, others more significant. The people that Chava and Ahmad touch are never the same again and for some the end result is utterly tragic. But there is love and hope, too. Every one of these stories is a treat to read. The past, too, has a presence. I enjoyed so much Ahmad’s growing awareness of what happened to him all those generations ago when he was trapped in the flask. The menace increases, as does the friendship and love between the characters, until the final unputdownable third of the book which kept me awake late at night to finish.
The Golem and the Djinni is a debut novel which makes its achievement all the more extraordinary. For me, its success lies in making its magic real. The historical descriptions are detailed and wonderful and given an extra dimension through its evocation of spirits, spells, curses and desert mirages. It is incredible how naturally this portrait of ancient golems and djinnis suits New York City in 1899. I’m not a fan of fantasy, on the contrary, but here we have a book that marries perfectly the real and the imagined and the union benefits both. The figures of the golem and the djinni bridge both worlds, they have no choice, and as a result their story is magical.