BOOK CLUB: The World That We Knew

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By Alice Hoffman
ISBN: 978-1-4711-8583-0
Simon and Schuster Australia

The World that We Knew manages to be both devastatingly sad and luminously beautiful at the same time. It’s quite an extraordinary novel. I’m not always a great fan of magic realism; some writers seem to use it as a means to avoid plotting properly.

Here, however, it adds a gentle patina that softens the brutality of the Nazi regime and shades another dimension into the story. The plot is very carefully worked out; the mystical elements are integral, not a cheat.

In Berlin, as the Nazis come to power, Hanni Kohn seeks to send her beloved daughter Lea to safety. But Lea is only twelve; she needs protection on the journey. Hanni is desperate enough to risk all: the creation of a golem, a magical being that can destroy or save. For this, she needs the help of Ettie, and in return offers Ettie, too, the means to escape Berlin.

From then onwards, Ava (the golem), Lea and Ettie are inescapably entwined. Even as they separate emotionally and physically, fate brings them back together, over and over.

Hoffman does not spare readers from the atrocities of the Nazi regime. She generally depicts them indirectly, but in ways that wrench at your heart and make you feel the cruelties and losses anew, no matter how many novels or histories you’ve read set in this period. And yet, love seems Hoffman’s greatest interest here. How is it forged, how is it lost, how does it change, what does it demand, and most importantly, how does it endure?

I really loved this novel. It’s deeply thoughtful underneath the emotion. Hoffman writes beautifully and draws you into a world just a step removed from ours. The magic illuminates the questions about love and loss and sacrifice and is integral to the story, while not being central. Although the subject matter is dark, I find myself using words about light to describe it – luminous, illuminated, shining. Because ultimately this is a novel about love and the triumph of hope.

The subtle but strong world-building and distinct and empathetic characters lend the novel a fierce strength that will enter many readers’ hearts. This novel deserves to be widely read, both for its’ outrage and its’ hope. It will likely appeal to readers across genres; I cannot imagine anyone who enjoys good writing being unable to find something to appreciate here.

So, it almost goes without saying: this is a novel I’d recommend to almost anyone. You’ll get something out of it (most likely something powerful and hopeful), I promise.

A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club members are reading The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman. You can find out what they thought in the comments section below, or leave your own review to contribute to our discussion.

10 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB: The World That We Knew

  1. At first I thought this book was going to be too mystical and magical for me with a golem created to protect Lea from the horror that surrounds them in the world at that time. I was wrong as the magic in this book makes it what it is and I soon found this book captivating and loved it.
    It was set from 1941-1944 in the time of the Nazi regime. Even though this was not a good time the book was so beautifuly written, full of love, strength and hope for a better future.
    All the characters were described so well that you got to know all their fears and losses.

    I want to thank Simon and Schuster for this ARC and the author,Alice Hoffman, for such an inspiring read.
    I recommend this book and will be sure to look for Alice’s work in the future.
    Although I didn’t get this from B&L I want to share my thoughts.

  2. This is a book that will linger long after you’ve read it. At first I was a bit hesitant, because anything written about the Jews and the Nazis in WWII is usually grievous, full of atrocities you’d rather not hear about but nonetheless need to remember and respectfully mourn forever after. To my surprise the creation of a Golem, a mythical creature raised from clay and water to guard and protect someone, added not only depth and magical thinking to this book, but a strength and hope I didn’t expect. The Golem is called Ava, and she is to guard the young Lea as they flee the Nazis in Berlin, and also guard her from Azriel, the angel of death. And Ava does so, in unexpected ways all through the book. But the book is more than just the story of Ava and Lea, it is also Ettie’s, Ava’s maker, and the young men and women these Jewish girls come in contact with. The heron on the cover of the book plays a pivotal role as well, very unexpectedly. How beautiful. There is love in this book, and death and grief, but also that undeniable hope and strength I mentioned before. A triumph of writing. Thankyou to Beauty & Lace Bookclub and Simon & Schuster Australia for the review copy.

  3. When I read the blurb of this book by Alice Hoffman, I wasn’t sure that I was going to enjoy it, as fantasy and magic have never been something I have sought out in fiction. However, I found myself drawn into the rich storytelling almost immediately and found that the elements of magical realism that Hoffman employs to add an interesting layer to the narrative were actually a really useful and valuable addition to the book. As a history teacher, I found the historical setting of World War Two Europe immediately engaging, and felt that Hoffman dealt with the difficult and traumatic historical aspects of her story extremely thoughtfully and with the utmost respect for the victims of the Holocaust. The positive focus on Jewish culture and spirituality were really interesting, as was the deep characterisation of the key figures in the story. Overall, the story was one of courage, hope, love and friendship – the universal themes that make us all human.

    I don’t want to give too much away, because this book would be best enjoyed from a blank slate I believe. It was the kind of book that you can’t stop thinking about while you’re reading it and feel quite sad to finish. I highly recommend it to anyone that enjoys historical fiction, drama, stories about women and their experiences in the world…really, I think this book has something for everyone! Warm thanks to Beauty & Lace Bookclub and Simon & Schuster Australia for the review copy.

  4. This was the first book I have read by Alice Hoffman and I was a bit hesitant when I read the blurb, but I decided to step out of my comfort zone, and I am so pleased that I did. The Jewish Folklore/Mysticism was blended well with the facts of WWII and helped focus on the positives in such a terrible time. We were able to appreciate the beauty of nature and the miracles of life and what it is to be human.

    All of the characters were well written with Ava, the Golem being my favourite as she represented the strength of a Mother’s Love and what a Mother will do to protect her child.

    This was a wonderful, thought provoking book which I highly recommend. Thanks to Simon & Schuster Australia and Beauty & Lace for my copy for review.

  5. The World That We Knew is based during the war in 1941 and follows the stories of many families trying to survive through the toughest times of there lives.
    Hanni wants what is best for her daughter, Lea and the only way to do that is to send her away but first wants to find something to keep Lea safe, even if it involves using a little magic.
    Ava a golem is created to protect Lea.
    During the story you are introduced to many characters facing slavery, capture, torture, and death. It’s a very heartbreaking read but written beautifully to keep you interested.

    I loved both the realisticness of this story but also the magic and fantasy.

    I’m excited to delve into Alice Hoffman’s back catalog.

  6. The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman is, I think, the best book I have read all year, and I have read a lot. I don’t usually read magical realism but Hoffman has presented her characters and story-line so well that I quickly became totally enmeshed in this novel, despite the central role of a magical creature created out of clay and water, a Golem named Ava.

    The novel was totally captivating and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

    Many thanks to Simon and Schuster Australia, Alice Hoffman and Beauty and Lace for the opportunity to read and review this “I can’t put it down” book. I will definitely be looking for more from this author,

  7. Many thanks to Simon and Schuster and Beauty and Lace for the opportunity to read The World That We Knew. I found it to be a brilliant read and enjoyed it very much. Highly recommend to other readers

  8. I love Alice Hoffman’s work for its fantastical elements and The World That We Knew was again engaging for this very reason. While I think I’ve read too many historical fictions stories surrounding WW2 recently, this was so unique that I was able to be absorbed into the world without complaint. I adored Ava and Lea’s relationship and will definitely be re-reading again for the more subtle elements that would have been missed.

    Thanks to B&L and Simon and Shuster for the chance to read. Recommend for anyone that likes to stretch their imagination, historical fiction or just well rounded beautiful stories.

  9. The world that we knew is a stunning blend of the horrors of World War 2 and Nazism, mixed with the intense love of a mother for her child and Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah).

    Kabbalah is not something that is practiced by many Jewish people, and so those aspects of this book would be as strange and mystifying to those of the Jewish faith as to any other reading the tale. However, many of the religious observances, prayers and transliteration of Hebrew words would resonate strongly with those familiar with Judaism.

    Hoffman begins her tale in Berlin in 1941, Hitler has embarked on his final solution to “the Jewish problem” and Jews residing there are rapidly losing any rights as human beings. Food is nigh on impossible to access, Jews are being murdered, rounded up and shipped out on trains to death camps and the time to escape is all but past.

    Hanni Kohn is trying to survive, unable to run because of her bed bound mother, desperate to save the life of her 12 year old daughter Lea, still mourning the death of her husband Simon, a skilled heart surgeon, killed by a group of thugs as he left the hospital after performing life-saving surgery.

    In desperation she turns to a Rabbi’s wife to assist her; but is turned away. This is a time when women were still excluded from the inner sanctum of Jewish prayers and certainly from Jewish mysticism. But the Rabbi’s daughter Ettie has listened at the door as her father conducts his secret services and with an eidetic memory knows that she is able to provide the assistance Hanni requires.

    With the aid of her younger sister Marta, Ettie and Hanni create a female Golem, a creature formed entirely from clay, with no soul but superhuman strength and ability, to protect Lea and lead her to safety.

    Hanni names the Golem Ava and introduces her to Lea as a distant cousin come to take her to France and safety. Lea does not wish to go but Hanni forces her to leave.

    Ettie and Marta also make their escape, but an incident on the train they have boarded leads to Marta’s death, and over time leads Ettie into the role of a freedom fighter.

    As Hoffman leads us through Lea’s perilous journey to freedom we watch the spread of Nazism across Europe and the associated atrocities, we observe the treatment of Hanni and Bobeshi (Lea’s Grandmother) as the Jewish purge in Berlin continues, we watch Ettie transform from observant orthodox Jew to fighter, see the denial from some that they will be treated as Jews first and French citizens second and the implications of that, watch others grow up before their time as they choose to fight back and watch as even under the most difficult of circumstances love grows.

    Yet with all the horror and sorrow Hoffman manages to weave an ethereal quality throughout the tale. We watch as Ava becomes somehow more than the soulless creature she starts out as. Her interactions with the Heron are truly beautiful and astounding, leaving the reader with a strange sense of peace.

    Hoffman has created a powerful and deeply moving tale of the extent to which a mother will go to save the life of her child, and the resilience that is required to survive when all around you is evil.

    The World That We Knew is by no means an easy read, it is challenging on many levels, but it is a beautiful, well crafted tale with a powerful impact. I would highly recommend reading it.

    Many thanks to Beauty and Lace Book Club and Simon and Schuster for the opportunity read and review The World That We Knew.

  10. The World that we Knew by Alice Hoffman was a very memorable, artfully written, beautiful novel set in World World II. What set Alice’s writing apart from others set in this time period was the fantasy element of the golem created for her daughter Ettie to keep her safe but also integrity, strength and hope intertwined throughout the story by the main characters that we are introduced to. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The World that we knew. Thank you Simon & Schuster Inc Publishers, Beauty & Lace Bookclub and Alice Hoffman for providing the opportunity to review this novel.

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