Modern fairy tale is a delight

Joan Frank / San Francisco Chronicle /


Published Jun 30, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

“The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker (Harper; 486 pgs.; $26.99)

Some books function like improbable new friends, people we might not necessarily have chosen but who so charm and intrigue us that we find ourselves eager to see them again.

Such is the case with Bay Area author Helene Wecker’s debut novel, a Scheherazadian feat of storytelling and a surprising pleasure to read. Set mainly in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, it calmly describes the creation (by a Jewish wizard) of a golem, or ultra-powerful humanoid slave-creature made of clay, this one a woman.

But the woman of clay who arrives by ship to Ellis Island is someone we care for instantly. A kindly but ailing old rabbi recognizes what she is, and resolves to protect her. He names her Chava (“life”), finds her a job in a bakery and provides basic orientation to New York Jewish culture.

Meantime, across town in Little Syria, a goodhearted tinsmith named Boutros Arbeely opens a simple copper flask and, to his shock, releases a jinni (what we now call a genie) who’d been trapped there a thousand years.

In a pleasing parallel to Chava’s story, Arbeely becomes his hotheaded new friend’s mentor and employer — gives him a job in the tinsmithing shop.

The golem and the jinni will, of course, meet. They’ll acquire allies and enemies (terrific characters all), stumble into hydra-headed trouble and be pursued by those determined to destroy them.

This modern fairy tale is delightfully Dickensian, an ensemble of characters destined to re-encounter and reckon with one another against an epic sprawl of time and civilizations.