BOOK REVIEWS

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman — book review

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“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

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Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg — book review

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From the first page I was drawn by Natalia Ginzburg’s incredibly vivid prose. The title of this memoir encapsulates much of Ginzburg’s recollection of her family. She remembers in minute detail the way in which within her family certain words and phrases had a particular significance or meaning, one that is known only by a small group of people.
For example, the father reiterates the same words and views so much so that readers can predict not only what he will say but the words he will use. The same goes for the rest of Ginzburg’s family…I never thought of them as ‘characters’ but as real people. And of course they were ‘real’ but it is rare to find a memoir—or a book in general—that really brings to life these different personalities.
Maybe I found a lot of the family discussions and anecdotes relatable because I’m Italian, and Ginzburg’s father reminded me very much of my own grandfather (from their quirks and habits to their idiosyncrasies). And in a way in this portrait of her family Ginzburg evokes the typical Italian family (the brothers who fight with one another, the temperamental father, the pacifying mother).
Behind the laughter and mundanities of this family’s everyday life is a country in turmoil. The rise of Mussolini and fascism repeatedly threaten the safety of Ginzburg’s loved ones (her father was jewish and her first husband—born in the Russian Empire—was an anti-fascist). Yet, even as her brothers and father are imprisoned and released time and again, there is a sense of normalcy that alleviates the gravity of these situations.
A memoir full of humour, love, and deeply insightful, I would definitely recommend this to readers who might want an immersive and entertaining glimpse of an Italian family in the 30s and 40s.

side note: the cover for the English edition of this book is beautiful.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars (rounded up to 5 because I listened to the audiobook)

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THE REMAINS OF THE DAY: BOOK REVIEW

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

 ★★★★★ 5 of 5 stars

“Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.”

…and now I am sad.
This hit me harder than expected.

I find it impossible hard to believe that this book was written by Kazuo Ishiguro and not Mr. Stevens. The thing is, by the end, I believed in Mr. Stevens’ existence…
Okay, it might sound odd but that’s just how good this novel is. It made me nostalgic for something I have never known. I was overwhelmed by sadness and regret on behalf of Mr. Stevens. 71raA6p02aL.jpg
Regardless of its author, it is a beautifully written story. The narrative takes us back to certain pivotal moments of Mr. Stevens’ time at Darlington Hall. Through these glimpses we gain a vivid impression of Mr. Stevens. The other characters are just as nuanced and believable as the narrator himself. As Mr. Stevens’ looks back on his years of service, I became acquainted with him. He keeps back quite a lot, especially when it comes to his innermost feelings, and that made him all the more realistic.
This is a poignant and heart-rendering character study that was perfect for a melancholic soul like mine.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Dominic West (Mr. Stevens) who did an outstanding job.

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Ashland & Vine by John Burnside

Ashland & Vine follows a film student Kate Lamber who has been deeply affected by the death of her father. Medicating her grief through alcohol Kate spends her days trying to numb her feelings. Working on a project started by her flatmate/occasional lover Laurits, Kate is tasked with ‘collecting’ stories. Which is how she ends up meeting an elderly woman Jean Culver. Jean will tell Kate her own story if Kate stays sober for four days. Kate who is drawn to Jean, by her house, her garden, her quiet yet healthy lifestyle, ‘wills’ herself off alcohol.
Jean’s recollection of her past consists in chunky paragraphs. Throughout the novel, in various meetings, Jean tells Kate the story of her family. I didn’t quite buy into Jean remembering exactly what people said to her – or even to each other – years before, and I find the disjointed manner in which Jean tells these various anecdotes to be a bit confusing. Into her story there are crammed a lot of monumental historical moments. Her family members all seem to be part of vital American movements which wasn’t very believable. As Jean’s oral-history progresses, Jean herself – as well as her words – seemed to become the author’s mouthpiece. Jean asserts certain ‘universal truths’ which came across as the author’s preaching his own believes onto his audience. The past is filled with senseless violence, we should take care of our environment, the modern age has forgotten past values. We get it. There was also many instances were entire paragraphs are dedicated to classic films, art, and literature, which could have worked better if I didn’t feel as if Burnside was showing us his ‘knowledge’.
While Kate does provide interesting observations – questioning her own self, recalling her own childhood, describing her less than ideal relationship with Laurits – Burnside’s dialogues and paragraphs are far too long. Long rants or remembrances can be interesting but to use this technique throughout the novel slowed the pace of the narrative as well as appearing repetitive.
A strong and vivid beginning is weighed down by the author’s somewhat pretentious agenda.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

“Alexandra was trembling, because she had see the end and the beginning . And the sun had reached out and found her, stroked her, chosen her.”

An encompassing tale that is slowly unraveled through the meanderings of Alexandra – an American and newcomer to Bulgaria – and Bobby, her taxi driver. After a mishap in front of a hotel, Alexandra finds herself with an urn, holding human ashes. Distressed she attempts to return the urn to its owners, enlisting the help of her taxi driver as to make her way through Bulgaria in search of the owners.
I know that this is the type of novel that is difficult to read. For one, it takes its time. Secondly, it includes harrowing accounts of the forced labour camps in Bulgaria. It can – and will – overwhelm you. But, Kostova’s elegant writing style and her painfully humane characters, make this novel an experience worth undergoing.

The increasingly frequent switching of perspective works well because it is cleverly presented: enwinted in Alexandra’s story are the accounts of those she encounters during her journey. Characters narrate to her snippets concerning the family to which the urn belongs to. At times the novel includes what Alexandra herself reads. This ‘format’ also allows the main characters to ‘move’ around a lot: as they go from village to village they discover more and more about the owners of the urn.
Half-way through the novel there is a focus on past events, events which are difficult if not horrifying to read.

“I considered allowing my thoughts to return to that wonderful field, by the river, where my son sat, and then drew back. I wanted to save that, still–to look forward to it. I sent out a short prayer […] although I had not prayed since childhood and had no idea how to address it. It went out from me like a letter with no stamp.”

There is no escaping the brutality that occurs in these camps. My lack of knowledge –for I was ignorant of such camps existing after the end of WWII – left me incredulous. I did not want to believe that such things have happened, and so recently. Kostova’s depicts a painfully graphic image of these places. But by then, I was so involved, that I could not turn away. I had to –alongside Alexandra and Bobby – keep reading. I cared too much for the characters and I needed to know what would had happened and what was yet to come.
I adored Alexandra, Bobby and their furry companion. Their friendship underlines their travels and time and again we glimpse and feel their connection. It is a nuanced depiction of friendship that does not happen overnight. The people they meet are just as strikingly ‘real’: the ‘cast’ is largely composed of elderly characters and Kostova offers us a wide-ranging portrait of elderliness.
There is an almost wistful quality to this novel. There are moments where there is an otherworldly ‘feel’ to the storytelling which further enthralls the reader.
The rhythm created by the protagonists’ search – which slowly unfolds the mystery of the ‘urn’ – combines perfectly with Kostova’s beautiful writing. Her graceful style accentuates the nostalgic atmosphere of the story.

“ She knew the shapes of his head and the fine planes of his face, the way the thick hair would someday be cropped short, the long quiet body, the magnificent hands, the look of curiosity curbed into diffidence but not tamed–the directness of the eyes,”

A moving tale which will stay with you long after the last page.

“People seem to believe that despair is the same as anguish, but it is not. It’s true that despair is surrounded by anguish, but at its core, despair is a silent, blank page.”

My rating: 4.75 stars

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

A moving novel that has a few flaws. Yes, I was – in more than one occasion – moved to tears, however, I was also aware that the story and its characters were rather clichèd.

Full of ‘compassion, suffering, romance, and constant danger’, Kristin Hannah was inspired by a Resistance heroine — the 19-year-old Belgian woman Andrée de Jongh – who established the Comet Escape Line, a secret network of people who risked their lives to help Allied servicemen escape over the Pyrenees to Spain.
The Nightingale focuses on two strong but vulnerable sisters, bolder Isabelle who has been kicked out of her latest private school, and Viann, the eldest sister, who lives a quiet and happy life with her husband and young daughter. When her husband – a ‘simple’ postman – is enlisted things take a turn for the worst. The sisterly relationship between Viann and Isabelle is a tricky one, and when Isabelle made to stay with her in the countryside tensions soon arise. After the Germans invade France, Viann is forced to let a German captain lodge in her home while Isabelle joins the Resistance. Casting past regrets behind them is not easy, especially when the sisters are constantly thrusted in life-or-death situations.

Hannah portrays in painstaking detail the cruel and brutal world that these women inhabited. Page after page, we see their freedom being eroded. However, it is when their loved ones are in danger, that the sisters are faced with making the most difficult choices.It is perhaps because – throughout the whole book – we see both Viann and Isabelle suffer all kinds of abuse that the reader comes to care for them.

Hannah has created an encompassing epic that is capable of moving to tears and of making the reader incredibly frustrated by the terrible circumstances that the characters are in and the choices they make. The Nightingale has it all, so much so that perhaps the story could at times feel a tad melodramatic; that is to say that the writing occasionally resorted to cheesy turns of phrases and that there were too many convenient occurrences within the plot. Nevertheless, the over-the-top parts do not deter from the overall enjoyment of the book and its themes. A touching –albeit occasionally corny– tale of survival that combines high-stake scenarios with a realistic family portrait.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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