When Allah created man out of clay, he created djinn out of fire. Ephemeral spirits that tempt us, trick us, and sometimes grant our wishes, these creatures of folklore take centre stage in excellent Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin’s anthology, The Djinn Falls in Love.
With contributors from all around the world, this collection of short stories is as remarkable for its variety as it is for its quality. Murad & Shurin have given their contributors an open brief, and the results are dazzling.
Some (try to) cleave to settings and stories located in times and places traditionally associated with these smoky spirits; others explore what the djinn might become in locations as disparate as modern day Los Angeles to rural Pakistan. One depicts a future where roles are reversed, in which now-corporeal djinni struggle to live alongside a crafty humanity always on the look out for a twist of fate in their favour.
This is a showcase of authorial skill – delicious prose and well-crafted narratives bending themselves around their chosen theme. Particular favourites for me include a number of authors new to me – one of my many reasons for loving anthologies. I shall certainly be watching out for these names in future.
Kamila Shamsie’s The Congregation is a delightful way to start a collection (yes, there’s a poem before it, but I’m shamelessly only here for the stories). It’s the sort of story that makes me want to read more by this author and everything in this book: a tale of twin brothers separated by nature and joined by love, interweaving Arabic and Greek myths in a harmonious whole.
‘We create a memory none of us recognises, soaked in mellow sunlight and a sweetness none of us understands.’
Kuzhali Manickabel’s How We Remember You starts off in beauty and descends into horror, exploring the cruelty we visit on those we love, those we know too well, those we envy. There’s no rhyme nor reason to our narrator’s behaviour; no excuse for it. They’re a monster, and the djinn pays the price. If the first story gave us love, this one confirms the collection will have its sharp edges.
Helene Wecker is one of those authors I know by reputation; The Golem and the Djinni has been on my shelf awaiting my attention for much too long. Majnun confirms that I really should get on and read it. It is the story of a djinn who has found Islam and turned exorcist, forced to confront the sensual Aisha and choose once again whether to turn his back on her.
Reap by Sami Shah may be my surprising favourite of the lot: a brash beginning becoming a powerful, unexpectedly moving tale of military observers haunted by what they see but cannot stop. They suspect a child has been murdered in a Taliban village, but are powerless to intervene either before or after a djinn gets involved. Does it seek vengeance or is it an amoral force of nature that will not be crossed?
Other highlights from authors I was unfamiliar with were K J Parker’s Message in a bottle, although I felt it was pushing a point to find the djinn (certainly there’s something in a bottle, but the untrustworthy spirit is a dead scholar) and Kirsty Logan’s The Spite House, which reversed the usual power dynamics to give a bitter, selfish woman the upper hand over its half-believing djinn.
JY Yang and Amal El-Mohtar have had their hands on my heart for a while now, and never fail to take good care of it. Their contributions were also favourites. Yang writes about gender and race with a mere kiss of djinni; Glass Lights is poignant and powerful as always. El-Mohtar contributes prose that is almost poetry, A Tale of Ash In Seven Birds sings of transformation as a spirit flits from bird form to bird form; a vivid hymn to the determination of all immigrants, defiant in the face of shifting boundaries.
While some stories recommend themselves to me more than others, there are no bad ones here. The collection includes other established authors such as Neil Gaiman (an excerpt from American Gods), Claire North (my least-favourite story of the collection, feeling a little too appropriated for my liking), James Smythe (gorgeously written but awfully opaque with its constantly shifting POVs and timeframes) and Nnedi Okorafor (fierce in her magic as usual, although it’s a stretch to call this a story of djinn). If their contributions are among my least favourite stories here, that goes to show just how good the rest of this anthology is.
My one caution – I wouldn’t recommend reading these tales back to back. As with many single-themed volumes, even djinni as varied as those in these pages can grow a little samey; but it is sheer delight to dip in and out of.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.