By Alice Hoffman
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.