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The Golem and the Djinni, by Helene Wecker, has a thoroughly developed historical setting in New York around the year 1900. At that time, much of the city was divided into small zones each housing a particular cultural or ethnic group - the two which are most in view here are ones which house Jewish and Syrian immigrants. Every so often the characters make forays into more affluent regions.
However, as you would gather from the title, the story blends fantasy elements into that basic setting. These are introduced by mythical beings representing each of those two cultures. If you like, the immigrants have brought their own fantasies with them.
The golem, a manufactured creature derived from Jewish thought, is female in form, and was originally constructed to be wife to an Eastern European immigrant. He dies on board ship while heading towards America, leaving the golem Chava to find her own way through life. Her nature compels her to want to obey the spoken or unspoken wishes of the people around. This is a constant source of difficulty, as she tries to reconcile the conflicting demands of great numbers of people.
The djinni Ahmad - a creature of fire, and many centuries old - represents the Syrian area. He was bound long ago into human form by the work of a magician, and is trying to find out how to unravel the binding. His other struggle is how to avoid boredom without his true nature being discovered.
Inevitably the two come into contact, and try to resolve their opposite problems. One has been built for obedience and conformity, but now has to make her own choices. The other craves a wild and unrestrained life, but has to cope with limitation. Around that basic dilemma a collection of interesting human characters orbit, and the exploration of cross-cultural New York is itself fascinating.
One particular character - perhaps the only one with a truly malignant agenda, and at times a little cartòonish in comparison with other people - comes to dominate the plot line in the later stages, as the main protagonists each decide how to cope with his influence.
All in all a most enjoyable book, which I thoroughly recommend. It could appeal to anyone who likes some fantasy stirred in with their history.
© Richard Abbott