Author: Alice Hoffman
Publication Date: September 24, 2019
Genre: historical fiction, magical realism, fantasy
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
This is a book that I’m sure many people will love. It’s a WWII story, an era which is always popular with the historical fiction crowd. The writing is quite lovely in its simplicity. The main characters are predominantly strong women, and one of the novel’s biggest themes is the strength of a mother’s love. And of course, it has a slight fantasy twist, drawing from Jewish mythology to further explore ideas about family, loyalty, and promises. But for me, the elements didn’t gel together quite as nicely as I would have liked.
The World That We Knew is very broad in its scope, so it is a bit tricky to summarize, but I’ll do my best. It beings in Berlin, in the early days of World War II, with a woman named Hanni and her daughter Lea. When a traumatizing event causes Hanni to realize that her family is no longer safe in the country, she arranges a bargain with the rabbi’s daughter, Ettie, to create a golem: a Jewish mythological creature, a being of clay made flesh, with incredible strength and unflinching loyalty to its maker. She names the golem Ava and tasks her with loving Lea as her mother would, helping Lea to escape the country and stay safe throughout the war.
So begins a great fracturing of paths and a journey across several years. Hanni stays home with her ailing mother while Ava, Lea, Ettie, and Ettie’s sister flee to France, their paths even further diverging as time passes. The novel is a constellation of the stories of these women and the many people whose paths intersect with theirs, including a boy who excels at math, a former maid who now works for the French resistance, and a doctor still reeling from personal losses long ago.
There was a lot to enjoy in this book. Alice Hoffman is a highly skilled writer, and she manages to beautifully telescope from individual experiences to global consequences even within a single sentence. The language is simple and direct, not overwrought, and humming with magic in the spaces between sentences. She effects a beautiful balance between being hazily atmospheric and pointedly emotional, which is a perfect fit for a story of this nature. At times it does become a bit heavy-handed or repetitive, especially when it wants to make sure it’s driving home some point about Hanni’s love following Lea wherever she goes—I understand why those scenes are written the way they are, but the effect for me was not exactly the one desired, I think.
And of course, strong women deserve to be spotlighted like the ones in this book are. Lea starts out uncertain but grows to be fierce, strong in her convictions and stronger in her love for her mother, for Ava, and for the boy she falls in love with. Ettie is brilliant and a fighter, always willing to do what’s right and tackle any challenge head-on. And watching Ava’s development, as she tries to figure out what it means to be “human” and why she isn’t, is a fascinating meditation on the nature of humanity and personhood, and on the line between duty and belief.
The thing is, there are a few parts of this book that ring slightly hollow. I am all for beautiful and sometimes painful descriptions of things, but some moments of imagery were just weird—when creating Ava, for instance, the women want to make sure she becomes a woman, not a man, so they have one of the girls smear period blood (from inside her underwear) onto the crotch of the clay figure. It was a brief moment, but it was a little messed up and didn’t seem necessary to further anything about the story. And while I won’t say anything about the ending itself, I will say that it felt too abrupt and rather like a cop-out of a conclusion.
Finally, I found the suggestion that this book is historical fiction with some magical realism to be misleading—there was a lot of straight-up, fantasy-like magic. It wasn’t just the existence of the strong surrogate mother figure of Ava, the woman made of clay; it was everything that came with Ava. She could talk to birds. She went dancing with a heron and had the bird fly messages back and forth between Lea and the boy she fell in love with. She had supernatural baking abilities and could make delicious food that everyone loved out of the meagerest supplies. I didn’t mind, but I think that someone who went in expecting mostly real with a sprinkle of magic would find a much larger dollop of fantastical, fairy-tale elements.
In short: this is a beautifully written, if a little discordant, story of faith, family, and female strength, of love and resistance and the indomitability of the human spirit. It has some shortcomings, but most of those are more issues of personal taste than problems with the book itself. Personally, I probably would not read it again, but I can certainly see why others would.
Thank you to the publisher for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.