The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

TheWorldthatTo start this review I’m going to use three simple words, breathtaking, beautiful, heartbreaking.

This is a unique story that takes a look at a specific period in history and chooses to focus on the lives of three women in particular whose determination to stay alive makes for compelling reading.

A story of the holocaust Hoffman chooses to highlight not the concentration camps but the lives of those trying to avoid them and by infusing the story with magical realism and myth and folklore creates an epic journey of survival that is harrowing and yet hopeful.

What I really loved about this was the excellent characterisation and the way the story incorporates more than just the grim facts.  This was probably one of the darkest times the world has known and yet by focusing on those people determined to change things for the better and help others even at great risk to themselves it highlights the goodness in people too and this makes the story capture those moments of beauty and light that give it extra depth.  However, bear in mind that this is at the same time, a difficult story, made even more so because of the fact that nothing is held back and the starkness of the reality is undeniably sad.

Hanna and her daughter are in hiding in the City of Berlin.  Hanna has become a thief, sneaking out in the dead of night to try and find food for the family.  On one such occasion she takes her daughter along and when things go horribly wrong decides that the time has come to send Lea away to safety.  Hanna seeks the most unlikely help imaginable.  She visits the house of a rabbi believing that a golem is the best way to protect her daughter.  As it turns out the rabbi’s daughter, an intelligent and quick witted young woman, born ahead of her time really, and very modern in herself determines to help Hanna in her hour of greatest need, at the same time she strikes a bargain with Hanna so that she and her sister might also try and escape the growing horrors of the City.  This is the start of a remarkable journey indeed that takes us into France, explores monasteries and remote schools and farms.  It takes us across country, takes a look at the resistance and gives moments of pure innocence involving a message carrying crane that likes to dance with a young woman made from clay and water.

The main characters are Lea (Hanna’s daughter) a beautiful young girl who unfortunately seems to draw the wrong sort of attention on occasion.   Lea is also the love interest for the story when she meets a young boy and the two form a strong attachment that even when separated (for much of the story) helps to sustain them.  Ava is the golem created to protect Lea and take her to safety.  As the story progresses Ava becomes more and more human and her desire to stay alive begins to override her need to obey the reason for her creation.  Finally, Ettie, is the Rabbi’s daughter who helped Hanna.  Ettie’s story is fuelled by the need for revenge that sees her eventually joining the resistance.

This story is just rich, in detail, in plot, in emotions and scope.  It’s beautifully written and yet at the same time quite unflinching in the details of what is actually taking place.  There’s a love story, in fact there’s more than one love story – three or four – and there are some brilliant secondary characters along the way who support the story really well, I particularly liked Marianne.

To be honest, I don’t want to go too much further with this review or over elaborate on the story because there is a temptation to give things away and I don’t want to do that.  Basically, this worked for me on a number of levels.  It’s a brilliant historical novel, rife with details, that takes a look at a much smaller slice of life.  It has satisfying storylines that intersect and come together in a very pleasing way.  I was rooting for the characters and felt a feeling of deep dread about how everything would all end – and as it happens the conclusion is perfect.  On top of that the magical realism elements, which aren’t for everyone I realise, are so very well done. Ava is a substitute mother who develops needs and longings of her own, she cares deeply for Lea but has her own desires that help to share the story and also give it an element of ‘why shouldn’t she live the life she wants?’ It’s a really interesting discussion point and one that kept me thinking long after the book was finished.

I don’t have any criticisms.

I received a copy through Edelweiss, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

I would rate this 4.5 of 5 stars


24 Responses to “The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman”

  1. alittlehazebookblog

    Gorgeous review Lynn!!! I adored this book and am so pleased to see you give it a high rating too :))))

  2. Barb @ Booker T's Farm

    I don’t think I’ve heard anything negative about this book. Great review!

    • @lynnsbooks

      Thanks – it was a really good read, a great read in fact. I just love Alice Hoffman and I did wonder whether this topic might be a bit different from her usual style but it worked very well, I loved that she managed to inject some magical realism into this and in such a good way. It’s a really dark topic after all but she manages to bring out the love and hope even in such dire circumstances and it kind of reminded me a little of Dovekeepers in that she focuses primarily on three women.
      Lynn 😀

  3. maddalena@spaceandsorcery

    You have me completely captivated! This story sounds almost like a classical quest, only this time the object of the quest is not some magical object, but rather safety, and freedom. I will have to add this one to my TBR…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      Yes, exactly that. Now I think about it it feels very much like a quest but freedom and safety is the main objective.
      Lynn 😀

  4. Tammy

    I can’t wait to read this! I’m off to buy a copy right now😁

    • @lynnsbooks

      I hope you get a chance to read it. I know you like Hoffman as much as I do so I’d love to see what you make of this one. It’s a lot more ‘real’ than some of her books but as you would expect her storytelling is just brilliant and the author manages to inject hope into a very dark subject. I also really enjoyed reading a story about WWII that takes us away from the battles and action and also doesn’t take place in a concentration camp – it just gave it a more unique feeling and I loved reading about the resistance movement.
      Lynn 😀

  5. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    This sounds beautiful, Lynn! Great review that really captured what you felt from the story. I still have yet to read Alice Hoffman, but hopefully one day soon. I didn’t even know about this book.

    • @lynnsbooks

      It’s quite different in some respects from some of her other books such as Practical Magic, much more real even with the magical realism element. It’s really well done though, the golem blends into the story very easily. A tough topic to tackle but I think she handles it really well and I loved the different take, looking at families trying to get their children to safety through whatever means possible and the resistance movement.
      Lynn 😀

  6. Madam Mim

    Wow, this book sounds amazing! I’m definitely going to have to check it out 🙂

  7. Lashaan Balasingam @ Bookidote

    I love the scope of this novel and the emotions it invites readers to embrace. I haven’t read anything by this author yet but I feel like I should! Wonderful review, Lynn!

    • @lynnsbooks

      She’s such a good author, I really enjoy her work – this book isn’t as ‘fantasy’ based as some, well, most of her books rely more on magical realism but this is a much more ‘real’ feeling story.
      Lynn 😀

  8. waytoofantasy

    Oh, this sounds like an amazing read, but also one that maybe you need to be in the right frame of mind for going into it. I need to read more Alice Hoffman, I love her writing. Great review, Lynn!

    • @lynnsbooks

      I love her writing too – and just to be clear, this isn’t as much a ‘mood’ book as I expected given the topic involved. It’s very ‘real’ and we all know that the history here isn’t light in any respect but this book manages to maintain a strong sense of hope throughout which I really appreciated during the read. Plus the connection between the three women and the overpowering sense of love in the different stories.
      Lynn 😀

  9. bkfrgr

    Great review! I love Alice Hoffman, so I’ll definitely read this, but it’s so good to hear that it’s awesome and you loved it. 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      I thought it was a greqt read, of course, I think I’m a little biased when it comes to Hoffman but I don’t think I’ve over sold this – it really is a good read.
      Lynn 😀

  10. September : My Month in Review | Books and travelling with Lynn

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  11. Carmen

    Great review, Lynn! 🙂 I agree with your analysis. This book was beautifully original and heartbreaking as well. I just finished it. I gave it 4* though.

    • @lynnsbooks

      Thanks Carmen – this was so much more than I expected tbh. I think when I picked it up I had serious reservations, even though I love this author, I thought this was going to be a really ‘heavy’ read. But, I think Hoffman really pulled out all the stops and I just seemed to glide through the pages with ease – even though some of it was definitely heartbreaking.
      Lynn 😀

      • Carmen

        I agree; it was very easy to read. Before I began I said: “yet another WWII novel!”, but this one blew me away. The magic was a nice touch, and a vehicle to pose deeper philosophical questions, such as what makes us human.

      • @lynnsbooks

        And I liked that we got to see more of everyday life. The resistance movement and the small ways that people banded together to survive.

  12. Best of the Best list : 2019 | Books and travelling with Lynn

    […] The World that we Knew by Alice Hoffman […]

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