The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker

 

 

It was great to be back.

I read The Golem and the Jinni not long after it came out in 2013 and at least once again since. Though I don’t remember every detail now, what I can’t forget is how it gave me the feeling of dwelling in an an entire and completely realized world, one that felt rich with historical details but also intimate and outside of time, one I was sad to leave. Chava and Ahmad were greenhorns in 1900 New York, and the novel was both a slow-burn love story and an immigrant tale of learning to adapt and fit in. The narrator was omniscient and a little at arm’s length. There were other story lines and secondary characters, but the focus was firmly on golem and jinni.

The Golem and the Jinni didn’t end on a cliffhanger — fortunate for the reader waiting eight years for this continuation, but not offering an obvious sequel path for the writer. And sequels/continuations are harder than they appear. Since they already have characters and a world, they seem like they should be easier than starting anew. But they need to explain things to people who never read the first volume yet not bore those who know it very well. They need to create the experience that readers loved the first time, but do more than just repeat it. And this case, there’s the weight of thousands of readers’ expectations. So how does this compare?

What soon becomes apparent is how differently time is handled here. The books are the same length, roughly 480 pages, but The Hidden Palace covers about 15 years, a much greater span of time than G&J. The action ranges beyond Little Syria and the Lower East Side: to Morningside Heights, to Brooklyn and even the Ottoman Empire.

Also, there’s more people, some with only a tenuous connection to Chava or Ahmad, doing stuff of their own, including, spoiler alert, constructing a golem in their tenement apartment (as one does). There is more History: the Odessa pogroms of 1905 get a mention, as does the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We meet Lawrence of Arabia before he was famous, and Gertrude Bell when she already was. The sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania both move the plot forward. And we see the city itself changing before the eyes of its residents, as the Manhattan Bridge is built, the first skyscrapers spring up, cars start replacing horses, women start demanding the vote.

So the feeling of The Hidden Palace was very different for me from The Golem and the Jinni: less cozy, but no less compelling. Chava and Ahmad were less at the center of the action, as their differences drove them apart, and they began to pursue divergent paths in this new New York, though events will bring them back together.

The plot is a thing of wonder, as the different story lines start to converge in ways both logical and surprising, and there are many delights along the way. I particularly enjoyed the stubborn orphan Kreindel, the wisecracking bicycle messenger Toby, and that Chava managed to put herself through college and become a teacher of Home Economics, which seems both absurd and completely right.

Will there be a third installment? It almost seems like…maybe?

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