“Heart of my heart, love of my life, the only loss I will never survive.”
The Nightingale meets The Golem and the Jinni in Alice Hoffman’s latest novel. Yet, while The World That We Knew may in points thread similar paths to those of many other novels (historical fiction seems to be brimming with WWII books) it is also undeniably Hoffman’s own unique creation, one that seamlessly blends the magical with the real.
“If you do not believe in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand.”
Hoffman’s distinctive writing style imbues her narrative with a beautifully rhythmic quality. Sentences seems to smoothly run into each other, swiftly carrying us from one scene to the next, and creating an effect of constant motion within the narrative itself.
Because of this the novel is more fast-paced than Hoffman’s works usually are. In a certain way it seemed to reflect the turbulent times it depicted, keeping up with the ever-changing war torn Europe, and while I can see why this worked, part of me wished for a slower pace…then again that might have counteracted the sense of urgency generated by the perpetually moving narrative.
Hoffman’s prose also resonates with the story’s focus on Jewish Mysticism and folklore. Not knowing much about certain Jewish practices and beliefs, I was absorbed by Hoffman’s comprehensive representation of this faith and its ideologies. Hoffman allows each of her characters to have a different understanding of this faith, one that is affected—for the better or worse—by their rapidly deteriorating realities. Jewish faith seems to be a multivalent and dynamic element of the story, appearing as more than a mere backdrop, a crucial component of Hoffman’s storytelling itself.
“Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden.”
The enduring love of a mother for her daughter sets in motion the story. To protect her twelve year daughter Lea, Hanni Kohn seeks help from Ettie, a rabbi’s daughter, as to create a golem, one that will become Lea’s guardian. The story will follow Lea, Ava (the golem), Ettie, and two brothers, Julien and Victor, as they attempt to navigate a world which seems determined to erase them and find solace in one another and in the kindness and compassion of strangers. There are many affecting relationships within these pages, familial ones (such as a mother/father-child or a sibling bond), and romantic ones.
“Each felt fortunate to be in the company of the other. The reset of the world and its cruelties didn’t matter as much when they were together.”
As these characters are united and separated, scattered across Nazi-occupied France, they are made to endure loss after loss. Yet, the narrative never entirely succumbs to darkness. While they are negotiating their feelings of grief and despair, they find purpose in helping those around them. Some become part of the resistance (rescuing thousands of Jewish lives) demonstrating their bravery in bold acts of heroism, others perform smaller acts of kindness (for instance Lea’s bond with another girl in hiding).
Ava seemed to be the embodiment of physical and emotional strength. While she may have been created as a ‘stand-in’ for Lea’s mother, she has her own distinctive personality, one that seems, to both readers and characters alike, to be other-worldly. As Ava experiences the world around her she begins to feel more keenly for those around her. Her new sense of self goes against her very nature—we are told many times that one should not mistake a golem for a human being—yet she slowly begins to gain independence. She forms a beautiful and heart-wrenching bond with a heron and her unique worldview gave us glimpses into the magical and temporarily relieved us from the otherwise brutal landscape of the narrative.
“In truth, she felt a kinship with bread and the way it was made, the damp weight kneaded and shaped into proper form, heated until it was set.”
Lea’s tumultuous relationship with Ava is rendered in a striking manner. Lea’s grief and confusion cloud her feelings towards Ava, while Ava slowly loosens the bonds of the role imposed on her by her creator(s).
Hoffman conveys with painful clarity the feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia known by those who are forced into hiding. There are many distressing scenes in which we witness characters being killed or taken to death camps, and Hoffman emphasises the horrors of certain parts of her story by juxtaposing them with seemingly ordinary and mundane scenes. We become accustomed to a family (its routine and dynamics), only to witness them being torn apart.
The youth and dreams of these characters are hampered by a series of events which presage the horrors to come. As Jewish citizens loose their rights and freedom, our characters are forced to reassess their view of the world and of their own future.
In spite of the uncertainty given by their stories, the narrative foreshadows some of these characters’ future decision or actions.
“Her greatest sin would be committed in the future, and it was one for which she could never be forgiven.”
Within her story Hoffman contrasts heart-warming moments between friends and families with the evil carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators. The novel explores the way each character attempts to make sense of themselves in an unrecognisable world.
It is a a tale of faith, grief, love, death, sorrow, destiny, bravery, and freedom. I was both anxious and eager to read about the various characters respective journey’s even if the narrative anticipated the way their story would unfold.
“The past was simply where she lived now, crossing over from on world to the other with such ease it was becoming more difficult to remain in the here and now.”
I thoroughly recommend this to fans of both historical fiction and magical realism. Hoffman’s melodic prose makes for an emotional reading experience.
ps: A ‘shout out’ to NetGalley for allowing me the pleasure of reading this prior its publication!
My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars