Helene Wecker’s debut, The Golem and the Jinni, materialized like magic on the 2013 literary scene. In that startling and scintillating novel, the author gave life to the inanimate clay of one old legend (the golem) and in the same breath gave complex shape to the shifting sands of another (the jinni). The reader’s delight was redoubled by this magnificent synthesis of Jewish and Arabian folklore. The friendship between Chava the golem and Ahmad the jinni in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City seemed as implausible—and as irresistibly alluring—as peace between two immemorially warring civilizations.
Like all great storytellers, Wecker knows we can never have enough of a good thing, so Chava and Ahmad are back in The Hidden Palace. Wecker’s arithmetic is plain: In the sequel, there are now two golems and two jinn. This epic mitosis exponentially augments the story’s narrative power and emotional consequences.
Chava and Ahmad have learned to conceal their true identities in order to live among human beings, so it comes as a shock when the newcomers—Yossele the golem and Dima the jinniyeh (a female jinni)—return us violently to the fearful origins of the legends. Yossele is no more than raw, animated clay, ready to kill anyone in order to protect its maker. Dima is a wild creature of wind and fire, ready to deceive and destroy a human being on a whim.
In Wecker’s novel, real-life events have an inexorable impact on mortal and supernatural characters alike. Whether you’re a monster or a human being, you have no choice but to confront the enormity of the sinking of the Titanic, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or the Great War. From one crisis to the next, a strange and unbreakable alliance develops among many persons and elemental creatures, burgeoning into something even more marvelous than the rabbinical spell and the desert magic that brought the golems and jinn into being.
As for the “hidden palace”—where and what is it, if it’s important enough to stand as the title? Could it be Ahmad’s grief-stricken, obsessive experiments with metal and glass, after he thinks he’s lost everything? Perhaps. But the author may be daring the reader to participate in the palace’s symbolic creation, to bear witness to its noble construction out of a secret and miraculous communion of Jewish clay and Arabic element.
Fans of The Golem and the Jinni have waited eight years for this sequel, a minor eternity perfectly in keeping with the precarious immortality of Wecker’s hopeful monsters. It has been worth the wait.