Do first lines matter in audiobooks? It’s a question I’ve recently been asking myself, as I read more and more of them. Take the most recent book I finished in audio:
The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.
This is as good a first line as you can find anywhere, and it absolutely pulled me in, though I find that I’m relying much less on first lines and instead on first 10 minutes. If I can’t make it that long, I’ll never be able to get through hours of a book. I’ve mentioned recently what an audio kick I’ve been on, and I’m discovering that my patience for long books with complicated story lines is much more elastic than I expected when it comes to audio. In the past I’ve always chosen books that are short, modern, engaging, fast-paced – usually mysteries or crime fiction, sometimes magical realism. Rarely would I venture to attempt a book that is, in print nearly 500 pages, and in audio nearly 20 hours. Nor would a book of historical fiction with foreign names and accented English appeal to me in audio. In print? Absolutely. Audio? Never.
So it was a surprise, even to myself, that I was as excited about Helene Wecker’s novel The Golem and the Jinni as I was. I kept wanting to go back to it, even though I’ve saved my audio listening – when I can – for commuting time on the bus or driving around on the weekends. Sometimes I just can’t help but find an excuse to listen, and I kept looking for them with this one. I’m writing this having just finished the last bittersweet chapters of this story, and I am haunted by it, to be sure. Here is the description from the author’s website:
An immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, The Golem and the Jinni tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899. One is a golem, created out of clay to be her master’s wife—but he dies at sea, leaving her disoriented and overwhelmed as their ship arrives in New York Harbor. The other is a jinni, a being of fire, trapped for a thousand years in a copper flask before a tinsmith in Manhattan’s Little Syria releases him.
Each unknown to the other, the Golem and the Jinni explore the strange and altogether human city. Chava, as a kind old rabbi names her, is beset by the desires and wishes of others, which she can feel tugging at her. Ahmad, christened by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, is aggravated by human dullness. Both must work to create places for themselves in this new world, and develop tentative relationships with the people who surround them.
And then, one cold and windy night, their paths happen to meet.
This book tickles all my toes and checks all my bookish boxes. Turn of the century New York City immigrant tales with traditional folklore are my genre kryptonite. Any of those story categories make me all kinds of fiction happy, but all of them together makes for my kind of book perfection. I’ve never attempted one of these in audio though, so I was fully prepared to give it a go, and abandon it for the print should it prove too much keeping the characters and the story straight. But this one is perfect in audio; George Guidall nailed each of the accents – the Jewish and the Middle Eastern – giving each character a unique timber that kept dialogue easy to follow.
If it sounds like a complicated and intricate tale, it is. There are a number of side characters and stories happening in parallel narratives as the Golem’s and the Jinni’s but part of what is so compelling is that as a reader (or listener) you know that at some point all of these threads must come together. But the question that tugs is how?
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