Turn-of-the-century fairy tale charms, intrigues

“The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker (Harper, 486 pages, $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 Helene Wecker’s debut novel, a 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 female, commissioned by a lonely Danzig businessman — will also be endowed (by request) with “curiosity … and intelligence. I can’t stand a silly woman.” The wizard warns his client: “No golem has ever existed that did not eventually run amok. You must be prepared to destroy her.”

But the woman of clay who arrives by ship to Ellis Island, newly widowed and untutored, is someone we care for instantly. As she wanders the chaotic city (superbly drawn by Wecker), 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. But he won’t, alas, survive long enough to reroute the spell that binds her.

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. He’s a handsome, tempestuous fellow (made, aptly, of fire), eager to avenge himself on the venal wizard who initially ensnared him.

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 jinni can perform certain soldering tasks with the heat from his hands) and frets about his welfare.

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. We’ll witness sexual liaisons (a millennium apart) and a marriage, all testing cultural and mortal limits, all courting discovery by the wrong folks, and all culminating in some thrilling, last-minute confrontations, acts of moral courage and bona fide love.

This modern fairy tale is delightfully Dickensian, and Wecker’s energy in imagining disparate worlds is a marvel.