Helene Wecker is the author "The Hidden Place," the 2021-2022 choice for the One Bay One Book program.
Helene Wecker is the author "The Hidden Place," the 2021-2022 choice for the One Bay One Book program.

One Bay One Book pick ‘The Hidden Palace’ explores assimilation through fantasy

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In 2013, Pleasanton author Helene Wecker published her first novel, “The Golem and the Jinni,” about an unlikely friendship between two magical creatures who meet in New York City in 1899. The book incorporates elements of fantasy, historical fiction, and Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature and won several awards.

It was also a hit with Bay Area Jewish readers, according to staff at the Jewish Community Library.

That’s one reason the S.F.-based library and its parent agency, Jewish LearningWorks, have selected “The Hidden Palace” — a sequel eight years in the making — for the annual One Bay One Book program. Published in June, the novel picks up the story of Chava, a Polish golem, and Ahmad, a Syrian jinni (or genie), in the years leading up to World War I. Book discussions will take place at the library, local synagogues and online through May.

“There are a lot of great themes for discussion that come up in ‘The Hidden Palace,’ including issues of othering and marginalization in Jewish life,” said Noa Albaum, the library’s program coordinator. “The main characters are mythical creatures who have to hide their identities and have to be careful about how they present themselves in community.”

Albaum noted that it is not necessary to read “The Golem and the Jinni” to enjoy the sequel, though the library has copies of both books to borrow. Book clubs must reserve copies in advance.

In a positive review of “The Hidden Palace,” Publishers Weekly wrote, “New characters, including another golem and a young female jinniyeh, and historical touchstones such as the sinking of the Titanic, drive the plot. Whereas the first installment was a propulsive battle of good versus evil, this delightful entry is more serialized storytelling à la Dickens.”

We think of the people who lived in the past as living one particular way … when the truth is the past was a kaleidoscope.

Wecker, who will participate in an in-person (pandemic permitting) or online event on May 22, 2022, told J. she was “very proud and very tickled” that “The Hidden Palace” was selected for One Bay One Book this year.

“You work on a book for so long and then it gets published and you sort of know academically that people are reading it because you get sales reports, but especially right now, when so much of my interactions with readers have been curtailed, to have that knowledge that locally, people are reading it, it makes it feel a little more real,” she said.

While “The Golem and the Jinni” addressed immigration and “the shock of finding yourself in a new place,” Wecker said, “the second book is a lot more about assimilation and the slow process of becoming someone else in a new world and having to decide for yourself what that means for you.”

Women’s rights, workers’ rights and health conditions in cities are some of the other issues she tackles that have contemporary resonances. “We think of the people who lived in the past as living one particular way, or only a small handful of particular ways, when the truth is the past was a kaleidoscope,” she said.

Wecker is currently at work on a third part to the story of Chava and Ahmad. “I’m hoping that it will not take me eight years,” she said.

Previous “One Bay One Book” selections include “The Book of V.” by Anna Solomon, “On Division” by Goldie Goldbloom, “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth, “A Guide for the Perplexed” by Dara Horn and “Moonglow” by Berkeley resident Michael Chabon.

“The Hidden Palace” by Helene Wecker (Harper, 480 pages). Available to borrow from the Jewish Community Library in S.F. and to buy from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and online retailers.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.