The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman: A heartbreaking and utterly enthralling wartime odyssey - book review -

In a world that has been consumed by wickedness, a mother will do anything it takes to save her child

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 18th August 2020, 12:30 pm
The World That We Knew
The World That We Knew

In a world that has been consumed by wickedness, a mother will do anything it takes to save her child…

If you haven’t already fallen under the spell of US author Alice Hoffman and her seductive brand of magical realism, then immerse yourself in her extraordinary novel, The World That We Knew, a heartbreaking and utterly enthralling wartime odyssey which opens up a unique perspective on humanity and inhumanity amidst the horrors of the Holocaust.

Hoffman’s dark and dazzling novel uses the classic fairy tale trope of the battle between good and evil for a searing exploration of the power of love, resistance, determination and kindness in a time of unspeakable brutality.

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The result is her most accomplished and unforgettable book yet… Hoffman’s ingenious alchemy blends ancient Jewish folklore, spine-tingling supernatural, and gut-wrenching reality in an exquisite formula that shocks, enchants, and makes us weep.

In the spring of 1941, the world of Jewish mother Hanni Kohn and her twelve-year-old daughter Lea is an increasingly terrifying place. Hanni’s heart surgeon husband, Simon, was murdered during a riot and now Hanni, her paralysed and bedbound Russian-born mother Bobeshi, and Lea are struggling just to stay alive.

But Hanni’s love for her only child is boundless and, with Jews disappearing from their homes every day, she knows she must send shy, intelligent Lea away to save her from the Nazi regime. Hanni has no choice but to stay behind to care for her mother so she comes up with a daring plan to keep Lea safe on her journey to freedom.

‘To fight what was wicked, magic and faith were needed. This was what one must turn to when there was no other option,’ Hanni observes, so she rests her hopes on a renowned rabbi who, she has been told, can create a rare and unusual golem, a mystical, elemental Jewish creature who looks human but has no soul, Her mission will be to guard Lea and ‘follow her to the ends of the earth and never abandon her.’

But it’s the rabbi’s daughter, 17-year-old Ettie, ambitious and clever beyond her years, who agrees to conjure up the golem from river clay and sacred water scattered with Hanni’s tears, and once Ava is brought to life, she, Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross and their fortunes linked.

Using money from selling a secret hoard of Bobeshi’s Russian jewels, Lea and Ava, along with Ettie and her younger sister Marta, buy false passports and train tickets to travel to Paris. But Ava, whose vision goes beyond the human world, can see the Angel of Death tracking their perilous journey.

In Paris, Lea seeks refuge with her mother’s distant French cousins, the Lévi family, and among them she finds her soulmate. But the city is under the Nazi jackboot, and Lea and Ava begin another journey to a convent in western France known for its silver roses, and to a school in a mountaintop village where Jews are saved.

Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the French Resistance fighter she know she is destined to be, and Ava, the golem, who legend says must be destroyed before she becomes too powerful and turns on her creators, wants to live long enough to achieve her own ambitions…

The World That We Knew is an unflinching portrayal of humanity at its best and its very worst, a mesmerising, mystical, tenderly wrought tale of survival played out through a diverse cast of characters from worlds both mortal and immortal, and a reminder that goodness can triumph against the cruellest foes.

Hoffman’s rich, vibrant and humane storytelling allows us to view the Holocaust through the eyes of desperate victims and the objective golem Ava, a soulless being whose task it is to learn human behaviour and who soon discovers that it has no logic.

Brimming with emotions so raw and tangible that you can feel the pain seeping through the pages, and yet imbued with a sense of hope, compassion and the eternal power of love, this is a gripping, moving and inspirational story that offers light even in the most impenetrable darkness.

(Scribner, paperback, £8.99)