Be prepared, this is not your general, run of the mill story, rather it is a magnificently told fairytale for adults. At the core is the theme of the scorpion and the frog, in which the nature of the being is paramount to the being's behavior. The reader on the audio is absolutely marvelous. When he does the Rabbi Meyer, his gentle spirit is apparent and I almost felt as if the character was real and was addressing me personally. I was carried away by the quality of his expression, accent and tone of voice. So I recommend to you, the reader, suspend disbelief, sit back and enjoy this fantastical tale which will surely captivate you if you allow it.
In 1899*, two mystical creatures, each possessing strength and strange powers, appear on the lower east side of Manhattan, from out of nowhere, in two locales that are relatively close to each other. One appears in a Jewish neighborhood and the other in Little Syria, a Muslim neighborhood. One is an entity made of clay and the other of fire.
The clay creature, the golem, was brought to life aboard a ship crossing the ocean to America. The lonely man who had her made, dies during the voyage. Without a master the golem is lost, for she was created to obey him. Jumping overboard to avoid capture, she magically walks along the floor of the bay and reaches the shore. She needs to serve a master.
The jinni is released from a copper flask, accidentally, when a tinsmith making repairs on it, unwittingly removes part of the message on its outer surface. In a powerful burst of light that sends the artisan flying across the room, a naked man appears. He is bound to the wizard who imprisoned him, but that wizard is no longer alive to either command or release him from bondage. He does not want to serve a master.
The story moves back and forth between episodes in the lives of the golem who tries to contain her nature and do no harm, and the jinni who has no conscience about the harm he does. The golem is only a few days old, but the jinni began his life in the desert of Syria, and was 200 years old before he was even imprisoned by the wizard inside the flask, where he remained for a thousand more years. The wizard desired more and more power, and he was going to use the jinni to achieve that goal, but he died before he was able to put his plan in motion. The jinni, thus, remained trapped inside the flask until his accidental release.
The story bounces around from the Jewish neighborhood where the golem lives, working in a bakery there, to Little Syria where the jinni lives, working for a tinsmith there, and then to the desert where the jinni was born and lived, in a palace he created until the spell was cast upon him. The timeline and the story get a little confusing, at times, but in the end, the threads are all knitted together.
In this fantastic tale of rabbi's spells and wizards curses, more creative than any I have recently read, two supernatural creatures find each other and develop a warm friendship and loyalty to each other. In humans, it would probably be considered love, but in their mystical environment, neither is supposed to really be capable of feeling such deep emotions of attachment. Both are in danger of discovery which would most certainly end their existence or, at the very least, drive them out of town. Their nature tends to violence, without remorse, when commanded by their instincts or their masters. Yet, each seems to subtly alter the other’s behavior for the better, as their relationship grows. Can their nature change? It is a profound question which can also be applied to human beings. Can anyone defy their very nature?
Each being is taken under the wing of a good samaritan who attempts to help them acclimate to the world they have entered. When they are named, they become Chava, a Jew, and Ahmad, a Muslim, both from worlds that exist within walking distance from each other, yet without knowledge of that other culture, or their ways, just as their own strange worlds are unknown to those with whom they interact. They learn to take on the appearance and behavior of a human, but not without confusion and great difficulty.
In the end, their blending of both of their worlds, with our own, is a beautiful thing to behold. The story, although very creative, is also very complicated, with a variety of characters entering and departing, a variety of memories advancing and receding, and it isn’t until the very end that all of the characters and their interwoven relationships are explained and become obvious. There are disparate cultures warring with each other and learning to accept each other. The story is filled with symbolism. Each character has a purpose, although it is not always apparent. I think this book might have been better as a series, because there is almost too much information contained between the covers for anyone to fully absorb with the first reading. I do think there could be a sequel to this book which explores the relationships that have not been completely resolved at the end. This would definitely be an amazing book to discuss with a group because there are a great many philosophical questions that will arise from the reading.
*(Regarding the frankfurter, I thought it was later than 1899 because of the mention of the price of a frankfurter at 10 cents in Coney Island; I remember it being around that price in the mid fifties. In the early 1900’s they were a nickel. I read an advanced copy and perhaps it was changed in the final edition.)