This is not a review. This is not a critical analysis. This won’t have a plot outline or a critique of the writing; either its style, content or factual accuracy. It isn’t an examination of the themes or a plea for anyone else to read this book. There are dozens of great reviews of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Djinni out there. Go find some.
This is a celebration of reading really good book, one that speaks to its reader in a multitude of ways. I remember reading a few reviews and recommendations late last year and my curiosity was piqued. I like a bit of mythological fantasy and I enjoy simple but effective story-telling. So I put my reservation in at the library and waited. Or rather I didn’t. I simply ploughed on through the other books in my reading pile. In the last few months I’ve really got my reading mojo back thanks to Adam Roberts, Pierce Brown, Adam Christopher, Graham Joyce, Lauren Beukes, Neil Gaiman and others. The Golem and The Djinni crept to the front of the pile and I picked it up on 8 February. My edition was 486 pages long. I usually read between 200 and 300 pages of fiction a week. I also read comics and I’ve also got a non-fiction on the go at all times (in this case Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright). I finished The Golem and The Djinni on 17 February, reading all 486 pages in 9 days, not picking up Going Clear at all during this time, and only reading one comic.
Which is odd. Because The Golem and The Djinni is definitely a book to take your time over and savour. It is a book that you want to consume and digest. But also a book you want to keep reading -– all the time. Cliché’s are thus because they are true. For me, this was unputdownable (except when I was asleep). I thought about it when I wasn’t reading it. I couldn’t wait until my lunch hour to get some reading in. I was annoyed when I had other things to do which blocked my path to the book.
Why did The Golem and The Djinni work for me? There are several reasons. First, the elegant writing. Then there are the interesting characters. No card-board cut-outs but well rounded characters, each with traits you can sympathise with, and all with many shades of grey. There are important texts and subtexts within the story. It is proper character driven narrative; simple but effective storytelling. Wecker doesn’t over-complicate things, despite a wealth of protagonists, each with a back-story and a fitting climax (except one, which I won’t spoil). The narrative takes its time. As it should. What you take from it is that she not only understands how it feels to be certain ways, to react to certain stimuli, and she understands how to put that understanding into a novel. Into a meaningful story. She has taken rivers of silk and weaved them into wonder; the ocean of a climax when they all come together in the end.
The Golem and The Djinni is about immigration and mythology, cultural clashes and acceptance. But it is also about conformity and choice within society. About fulfilling roles, especially those gender-specific ones. It is about fitting in when you don’t, about personal freedoms shackled by responsibility. Loneliness. Finding the other misfit and connecting because of your differences. Yet still feeling alone. The Golem is better in most ways than all those around her, yet must act less so. I feel many of these things that Wecker writes about and it is a joy to read them told with such thought-provoking characters and in an interesting universe, without laboured world-building. It is a book about what it means to live, to exist, to be a human. In some ways, this is a science fiction novel without the science fiction; they have themes in common – understanding humanity and its place in the world. The Golem and The Djinni is a book, a novel, a story that felt like it was written just for me (and I’m confident that others who have enjoyed it felt a similar personal connection), and that is the sign of a really good book.
The fantasy elements are neither here nor there in terms of the enjoyment. They are part of the narrative and they are devices that I particularly enjoy. That’s just a thing. But it’s the little touches that enhance my enjoyment – such as the fairy-tale animals The Djinni creates, or the imagery of the desert palace brought to the imagination with Wecker’s deft touch.
“A vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction; the feeling or state of being highly pleased or delighted; exultation of spirit; gladness, delight.” OED, 2014
Satisfaction – Wecker doesn’t let you down in terms of narrative, prose or character. The mythology fits with the story of immigration in America at the end of the 19th Century. The story satisfies with almost every aspect of its construction.
Delighted – to read such a well-written and entertaining book that also spoke to me personally.
Exultation of spirit – sometimes, and especially when I’ve read a boring or badly written or un-engaging book, I feel flat. What’s the point of all this fiction and storytelling malarkey? What’s the point of wasting hours on someone else’s poorly thought attempts at creativity? On the other-hand, when reading something like this, feelings of inspiration and positivity abound (even though the subtexts within the story generally reflect my negative view of society).
Glad – that I read The Golem and The Djinni and that it was written.
I wouldn’t say, however, that it was a brilliant book. It is not the book I expected. I thought it would be more of a straight forward urban fantasy. However… [Spoiler alert]. Now. I enjoyed the coda, and it made sense in terms of the story. However, it remained a fiction and produced the ending that the characters perhaps deserved. It wasn’t the one I wanted, me being me. I would have preferred an emotional wallop in the climax. I was hoping for something along the lines of the climax of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, when Will and Lyra realise that they must separate. But maybe that wasn’t what was required to conclude the story? What I took from this book is a great story minus the heart-wrench of reality (although it does mean that the main protagonist’s stories continue, either written or not). A personal shame, because The Golem and The Djinni is ‘only’ a really great book and a great read. But what a joy to read. And this is why I read. To enjoy a story and to take a deeper understanding of myself from it.