Staff Picks

The World That We Knew

Emily Porter

October 24, 2019


Emily Porter examines the human and supernatural relationships that compel the book's characters to endure even in the midst of horrific events, providing an emotional urgency that make Alice Hoffman's new novel a "definite must read."

image4r1v.pngIn this captivating and sometimes disturbing novel, Alice Hoffman creates an intricate world during the Nazi terror in Berlin and Paris in the years 1941-1944, wrapping you into the lives of the characters she brings to fruition.

We follow several Jewish children and their families whose stories become intertwined through love, horror, and a kind of magic that protect them from the terrors of the time. We watch a cluster of children develop into young adults while experiencing the grim horrors of trying to survive a hateful regime, watching those around them turn into ghosts. These are the lives we follow, we hope for, we mourn with, and cheer when they escape near death too many times.

Hanni, a desperate mother trying to save her child from the death camps, emplores a seventeen-year-old rabbi’s daughter to create a golem to help her daughter Lea escape Germany. In Jewish lore a golem is a mythical creature created by powerful religious men in order to watch over those in need. We watch this magical being, who was made from the earth, learn what it means to be human while trying to save them from imminent death.

The intensity of emotion felt throughout reading this novel cannot be put into words. Every character that was written into the pages became another connection, another soul I was invested in as the reader. The awe of being alive and fighting for what is right when everything is crashing down around you permeates throughout this novel. Hoffman creates these incredibly enriched, well rounded characters with complex thoughts and backgrounds that connects you to the inner soul of humanity.

Hoffman wonderfully offers even supporting characters that wisp of presence through the book around the protagonists, and yet they are seen and remembered. Their essence is there and you see a fully formed complex individual that brushes past you on your journey through this text. A nun who is caught by the Nazis, briefly in a chapter, has helped hundreds of souls and had such an impact for the brief time we were with her. As the Nazi’s read her the apparent crimes we learn about some of the depths of her being:

These facts were read aloud, as if they were criminal acts, but they were simply the small truths that allowed the mother superior to understand why she had come to this place to teach and to accept girls no one else would take on, and why she had loved this rose garden so well, for it was in her lineage to favor beauty and knowledge, as it was to have regrets, now, at the end of her life.

The connection I developed to the story completely entranced me to the point that when reading about one character I was on edge as to what was happening to others in the pages ahead. Every character is shown a complexity and a soul that shines through. I can envision Ettie accepting the red shoes, Julien laying in a shed hoping to survive another night to see his brother and his love Lea again, I see the heron dancing with the golem, and Victor bombing the Nazi police for the Jewish Resistance.

Hoffman’s writing brought me into the homes of the suffering and the hopeful. I watched the creation of a sacred creature, cried when families were forced apart and thrown heartlessly onto trains never to be seen again. The reader is filled with hope while characters encourage each other to survive and find meaning to continue after losing everything and everyone around them.

The World That We Knew is honestly one of the best novels I have read about the time period. What struck me the most was how powerfully the relationships were depicted in these pages—the human relationships, of course, but also that between a golem and a heron—relationships that drive the will to survive such a horrific sequence of events, to desire to live to see each other again in a world that seems upside down.

That was how evil spoke. It made its own corrupt sense; it swore that the good were evil, and that the evil had come to save mankind. It brought up ancient fears and scattered them on the street like pearls. To fight what was wicked, magic and faith were needed. This was what one must turn to when there was no other option.

A definite must read.

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