The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Once, back in the old country, a Jewish man wanted a perfect wife so he went to a man in the woods who could make anything. This man thought it was a crazy idea but used all of his skills in the black arts to create a most complicated golem and the man awakened her as they traveled to America, only to die within minutes and leave her new and confused about the world. But there are other strange creatures in the world, such as the jinni who live in the far off skies and rarely mingle with humans. But one did centuries ago and was somehow chained as a result, bound to human form with iron and recently released in another part of New York City. These two will meet each other and debate on how to live among humans, should they accept their fates and keep going or accept who they really are and make all of those around them uneasy?
As I noted in my intro, I was sure this book was young adult when I started reading it but since the library markings list it as general fiction I suppose it's not, however it really straddles the line both in ideas and prose. Most of the adult fiction I've read this year tends to have prose that's more, aware of it's own self, than YA, most of the time it comes off as a "person who loves to hear the sound of their own voice" and that's part of why I've moved back to more YA, I just find that rather boring*. This book is written plainly and straightforwardly which might come as a bit of a surprise given how long it is, that's not from the author padding scenes out! On the story level, let's face it, the books might be called young adult but the average age of the protagonists is 16 when you technically are a young adult but not in the sense that an 18-25 year old is which has always bothered me. It's hard to find adult fiction of characters that young, and apparently "New Adult" is just bad romance novels, and technically neither of the characters here are young adults, the Golem is mere months old and the Jinni is about 200 and yet their struggles were the kind that young adults deal with all the time. Regardless of names, it's got more potential for a crossover audience than most books I talk about here and it's for all the right reasons.
The Golem and the Jinni may have magical origins but this book isn't really a fantasy, it's not even low-fantasy, magical realism, it's even hard to remember at times that it's historical fiction. Both of our leads are now stuck in mid-1800s/early 1900s New York City and on their own which is scary enough when you've moved to the big city for the first time on purpose! There is a "plot"-related conflict in the second half at the book but what first comes to my mind when talking about the conflict is how the two of them must learn how to blend in and live in their new world. For the Golem this means blending in, resisting all her urges to serve the people around her and to act as humanly as possible, and yet the characters never mention her becoming human, just the idea that she will forever have to imitate them. For the Jinni he still wants his freedom and he has to come to realize that his freedom comes at a cost to those around him, a contrast to how the Golem's way of living hurts her more and more everyday. The story never presents this as a Deep, Moral of the Story either, it's a choice these characters don't make once but keep making everyday and these choices will define everything else they do which feels a lot like social interactions in general. "Do I speak up or should I keep quiet and let this small problem pass me by? If I don't speak up now when will I? If I get mad over something little like this how will other people deal with me in the future?" That's the bulk of the book, building up not so much the setting but creating the Golem and the Jinni's personalities and setting them up for when they have to face a huge problem.
As for the story's true conflict, I can see where some people would be unhappy that everything connected so neatly and normally I would have as well but the story certainly backs up the idea pretty thoroughly (I knew I should've been suspicious when it started giving another character backstory!). Actually, if anything I was surprised when the real conflict started up since it appears so late in the story, it didn't feel as if the story was dawdling to get there but it's a very different story structure than I'm used to. I did feel like some parts of this conflict wrapped up too easily, as if the writer hadn't wanted to make the story even longer while the characters figured out another solution, but that could also be because I felt like the ending was much harsher on the Golem than it was on the Jinni and I rather liked her more. Regardless, this was a strong book, it's long and character driven without losing focus and I'd recommend it to practically anyone. It also reminds me a little bit of a book which I know was YA from a few years back, The Night Circus. That one is definitely fantasy and, while shorter, covers the lives of two characters as they grow from kids into adults (hence why it's YA I suppose) but there's something similar to the tone of the story. The casual way the fantastical has entered into their lives, the way that the characters grow closer without their relationship starting out as a romantic one, on a story level they're very different but thematically I think that if you like one you should go ahead and check out the other when you've got a chance!
*the one exception I can think of right now is The Dream Thieves which is YA where the words are chosen so that the story continues to describe what's going on even when no one is narrating, I didn't expect to like it but I think it's a case where self-aware prose works because of the nature of the story itself where there really are a few different levels going on in the plot alone. Tangent over!