Like the best dancers, the best audiobook narrators make what they do seem effortless, a pure, friction-free exercise of desire. The story melts into the listener's mind as if absorbed through the skin. As a result, it's sometimes hard to appreciate just how gifted the best narrators are.
Take George Guidall's performance of Helene Wecker's new novel, "The Golem and the Jinni." The book is set among the immigrant communities of 1899 New York. Two creatures from folklore, a golem and a djinn (or genie, or jinni, as Wecker renders the word), find themselves living in the Jewish and Syrian quarters, respectively, trying to pass themselves off as human beings. The golem, designed by a master sorcerer to pass for a real woman, is at radically loose ends; the man she was created to serve dies in the Atlantic crossing. The jinni has been accidentally freed from a long imprisonment in a tin flask, but remains trapped in human form. The tinker who releases him, and an elderly rabbi who recognizes the golem for what she is, act as guides to the new world for the two central characters.
The temptation when narrating a story set in this kind of milieu is to adopt marked accents, the comic fodder of 100-plus years of American popular entertainment. Guidall wisely eschews that. There is a lilt to his narration, the flavor of a vaguely eastern elsewhere, but this adapts readily to both the Syrian Christian community where the jinni makes his place as a metalworker and to the semi-assimilated Jews among whom the golem finds a job as a baker. "The Golem and the Jinni" is less concerned with the specific ethnicity of either group than with the shared identity of all immigrants. What the golem and the jinni have in common is that they are immigrants to the human race.
They're also profoundly different: the golem, cautious and excessively prudent, able to read the desires of the people around her and impelled instinctually to serve, while the jinni is a capricious, mercurial being unaccustomed to accommodating any whims but his own. These are, perhaps, two extreme aspects of human nature itself, and not unrelated to gender, but it's only when the two title characters meet -- rather too far along in the novel -- that they begin to temper and nudge each other closer to the richer, mixed quality of the truly human. Occasionally, the story is given over to a supporting character: the rabbi's socialist nephew, a cursed ice cream vendor, the magician who created the golem, and others.
You won't necessarily notice how Guidall subtly shifts the cadences of his narration with each change in the novel's point of view, or how he lightens the timbre of his voice when the female characters are speaking without resorting to the dreadful drag-queen-like falsettos that too many male narrators adopt when speaking the dialogue of women. He makes Wecker's child characters sound young without reducing them to chirping Kewpie dolls. The passages told from the golem's point of view sound deliberate, like heavy, careful footsteps, while the jinni's are ever so slightly fiery and impetuous.
But if you don't notice Guidall's virtuosity, don't feel bad. That's part of the magic of this performance, that it doesn't register as a performance at all.
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