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A Dickensian, modern fairy tale

Published June 28, 2013 9:27 pm

Fiction • Set against the sprawl of time and civilizations, allegorical novel explores timeless questions.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

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 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, an ensemble of characters destined to re-encounter and reckon with one another against an epic sprawl of time and civilizations. It's cinematic, particularly in period detail (I'm awaiting the film version). And it's allegorical, exploring questions of what is meant by (or owed to) love, friendship, law, religious faith or its lack, the pleasures and pains of owning a body, the protections of close-knit ethnic groups as well as their xenophobic insularity.

Wecker's love for New York (and what was surely a passionate amount of research) irradiates her tale. And if sheer density of exposition makes the book sag somewhat at its midsection, Wecker's steadfast energy in imagining such disparate worlds as the Syrian desert, the cold villages of Danzig and the backstreets of the Bowery remains a marvel.