Home > Lifestyle > Books > Reviews
Sunday August 18, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday August 18, 2013 MYT 7:55:44 AM
By TAN SHIOW CHIN
Can two opposing elements combine harmoniously? Can two very different, even hostile, cultures, thrown together in a New World, learn to live together?
EARTH and fire are two opposing forces, with earth being able to put out fire, and fire able to scorch the earth. How then do two creatures of such contrary elements become friends?
In 1899 New York, a golem formed from clay, and a jinni, a being of fire, form an unlikely friendship, fuelled by the fundamental loneliness of being the only supernatural creatures of their kind in the teeming, crowded city of humans. Not only are they singular in nature, but each must also hide their true traits, for fear that humans might turn against them.
However, while Chava the golem takes the stricture of having to hide her real self to heart, Ahmad the jinni chaffs at not being able to use his natural abilities.
Created by a dabbler in the darker Kabbalistic arts, Chava was made to be the “wife” of Otto Rotfeld, a rich businessman’s son from Danzig (now known as Gdansk in Poland), who squandered the family fortune and now wants to start anew in America.
While she has the traditional qualities of a golem – unquestioning obedience and loyalty to her master, as well as Hulk-like strength and the Hulk’s tendency to go into a blind rage when adequately provoked – Rotfeld also requests for her to be curious and intelligent. These two qualities are what help her to survive the early death of her master (and purpose for being), when he dies of a ruptured appendix soon after he brings her to life on board the ship from Danzig to New York. In the city, she catches the attention of retired rabbi Avram Meyer, who takes her under his wing despite his doubts and fears of her.
Meanwhile, we are first introduced to the jinni when he is accidentally released from an ancient copper flask – a family heirloom of coffeeshop owner Maryam Faddoul, who resides in the Little Syria neighbourhood of New York. Maryam requests local tinsmith Boutros Arbeely to refurbish the battered-looking flask, and in doing so, he accidentally breaks the seal imprisoning the jinni within it.
Like Rabbi Meyer, Arbeely also (kind of) takes the jinni, whom he names Ahmad, under his wing, as he feels responsible for him.
Still trapped in human form, Ahmad is unable to either use his powers or transform back to his original form to return home to the Syrian desert. Even worse, he cannot remember anything about how he was captured by a human wizard.
The story initially unfolds along parallel lines as we follow Chava and Ahmad on their individual journeys of self-discovery and attempts to fit in among the humans.
Chava learns to control her mind-reading abilities and her automatic empathetic response, while Ahmad reluctantly learns how to interact with humans. When their paths soon intersect accidentally, a friendship slowly develops between them.
While the stories of Chava and Ahmad are the core of the novel, author Helene Wecker also gives good space to the development of the characters around them.
From Rabbi Meyer, his nephew Michael, and Chava’s creator Yehudah Schaalman to Arbeely, Maryam and Ice-Cream Salleh, each supporting character gets his or her own story heard – and this, at the same time, gives the reader a feel for the Jewish and Arabic immigrant neighbourhoods in New York at the time.
While the exposition of these characters’ histories might seem tangential at times – although I have to say, Wecker writes well enough that it all feels quite organic – everything takes on a deeper significance when the threads are gathered up towards the end of the book.
I appreciated Wecker’s technique in allowing the reader to follow Chava’s story right from the beginning, ie her creation, while we are dropped into Ahmad’s story midway, ie as a captive who can’t remember how he was imprisoned, and then slowly learn how he was captured.
What elevates the story is that as disparate as their origins may seem, there is a connection between the golem and the jinni, beyond their unlikely friendship.
This final revelation is not one that many, if any, readers will see coming, while the ending is bittersweet in a way, but satisfying.
First-time author Wecker writes a well-told story with depth and originality, and well-realised characters readers will feel for.
Strongly recommended for those who appreciate stories.
Copyright © 1995-2013 Star Publications (M) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)