Book Review: The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker
Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is one of my favorite books. Set in 1899 New York City, the story serves up a unique blend of history and fantasy that focuses on the small-scale (yet often still high-stakes) rhythms of daily life. Wecker’s protagonists—the pair of magical beings featured in the novel’s title—aren’t human, but they’re forced to masquerade as immigrants, two more displaced visitors struggling with how to define and adapt their identities in a new land.
The sequel, The Hidden Palace, picks up soon after its predecessor left off. Having defeated the corrupt kabbalist Yehudah Schaalman (the closest thing the first book had to a villain), Chava, the golem, and Ahmad, the jinni, resume the new roles they’ve chosen for themselves. Chava continues working as a baker, Ahmad as a tinsmith. But where the previous entry in the series took place over the course of a year or so, The Hidden Palace spans a decade and a half. For a while, the mythical lovers’ new home seems to change faster than they do. New York alters and grows, “reveling in its constant newness, its own unending cycle of reinvention. Automobiles began to dot the streets … Telephones appeared, fascinating the Jinni, who couldn’t believe such a thing was possible without sorcery.”
The couple fights constantly, though, bickering in all-too-human fashion. The causes range from the duo’s fundamental differences—Chava is a construct of clay, Ahmad a creature of flame—to the constant strain of hiding and suppressing their true natures, to the grief brought on by losing some of the mortals who have become close to them. Eventually, the relationship ruptures, and Chava and Ahmad separate.
I didn’t love this part of the story. The romantic strife felt ordinary in the wrong way, even when it focused on the magical undercurrents. And the fantasy seemed a bit too familiar as well: instead of exploring other aspects of Jewish and Arabic mythology (a leviathan? A behemoth? A roc?), Wecker gives us new golems and jinnis to serve as rivals and mirrors.
But I’m glad she doubled down on the history. Because she does a superb job with it.
The Golem and the Jinni provided a nuanced view of the Jewish and Syrian communities in New York City. The Hidden Palace furthers this trend. The cultures we glimpse are richly textured, both multi-faceted and riven with internal conflicts. (For example, early on two minor Jewish characters face “each other balefully over the threshold” of a door, “each staring in clear distaste at the top of the other’s head: the one garbed in Orthodox hat and side-curls, and the other, in the Reform manner, as bare as a Gentile’s.”)
The book’s longer timeframe also allows Wecker to integrate notable events. Some are lesser-known, like the heatwave of 1901 that “fell upon the city like a hammer. Horses dropped dead in the streets. Ambulances raced from building to building, collecting the stricken. The city parks became haphazard dormitories as all searched for somewhere cool enough to sleep.” Famous tragedies like the sinking of the Titanic also intrude, as does World War I (seen here from a Jewish and Syrian perspective, as relatives in New York worry about their families across the ocean whose crops are being commandeered by soldiers).
Most of all, I appreciated the renewed look at the immigrant experience.
Chava and Ahmad didn’t choose to come to America—Chava was made for and brought by a master who later died; Ahmad was imprisoned in a flask that ended up in Little Syria (a Manhattan neighborhood) by chance. And when they arrive, they have no choice but to assimilate. The question is how much. What aspects of their previous personas can and should they retain? How much should they adjust to fit in? Where can they contribute?
The analogy isn’t perfect; the Golem and the Jinni aren’t just Americanizing—they’re anthropomorphizing too, becoming increasingly human whether they like it or not. But they grow to love the new cultures they’re exposed to, the architecture and idioms they encounter. And they help shape them.
It’s a worthy theme to return to.
So while The Hidden Palace doesn’t feel as fresh as the first entry in the series, and relies on too many chance encounters to move the plot, I still enjoyed myself. Wecker has established a strong template to work from. If she wants to use it to craft more stories in this mold, I’ll be happy to read them.
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