My top books read in 2013 is topped by an old favorite and a new debut. Helen Wacker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is a powerfully gorgeous fantasy novel disguised as historical fiction. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is gorgeous, Gaiman-fantasy at its best. A couple of really great books.
I find it interesting how wrapping a fantasy in historical fiction allows a novel to transcend genre and suddenly appeal to a wider audience. It’s a neat trick that worked for Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and if there’s any justice it will work for Helene Wecker’s lovely and highly original The Golem and the Jinni.
The setting is the oh-so appealing turn-of-the (20th) century New York City, and the protagonists are, surprisingly enough, a golem called Chava, and a Jinni called Ahmad. Both find themselves in a difficult situation with no one who truly understands their respective plights. Chava was created to serve as a wife for a Polish peasant. Despite admonitions to the contrary, the peasant awakens Chava on the journey from Europe to America, then promptly dies of a massive heart attack. The golem is suddenly alive, but without a master, and while she possesses nearly limitless strength and endurance in her body made of clay, her strange ability to sense the desires of those around her threatens to drive her mad.
In traditional jinni style, Ahmad finds himself in Arbeely’s shop after the young man begins work on a copper flask. Ahmad has been trapped in said flask for centuries, but his release only adds to his torment, for on his wrist is an iron cuff that traps him in human form, and prevents him from accessing the full range of his fiery powers. His memories of how he found himself trapped thus have been wiped clean.
Eventually, the woman of earth and the man of fire meet and form a grudging friendship. Wecker develops their relationship beautifully, and it is the interplay between Chava and Ahmad that scores the highest points with me. In fact, Chava is a fascinating character, and while archetypal, she is also refreshing and delightful to root for as the novel’s main heroine. Wecker also uses the Jewish and Syrian communities to strong effect, adding a rich cultural element to the fantastic story.
Neil Gaiman is just the master of telling archetypal stories involving childhood, magic, evil, myth, and the world. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home in rural England and stumbles across a farmhouse at the end of the lane that sparks certain memories that he didn’t know he had. These memories spin back forty years to a terrifying time when something dark and menacing was almost turned loose on the world thanks to his fears.
Gaiman has such a talent for straddling the line between that type of fantasy the instills wonder and delight and a dark horror that works on all ages. He taps into the terrifying things that scare both adults and children. The monstrous caretaker in this novel taps into many of the fears we have both as isolated children and as worried parents. Gaiman’s creativity and imagination is vivid and powerful, tapping into something we all feel from our youth, and he imbues real menace into his stories that somehow still manage to work for both kids and adults.