My Sunday Book Review is for Alice Hoffman’s soul-grabbing book – The World That We Knew. I was drawn to this book while surfing on my Canadian bookstore site- Chapters-Indigo. While searching for another book, I couldn’t overlook the ‘recommended by Heather’ books, who is the CEO of the book chain and has yet to steer me wrong with one of her picks. This is a book I struggled to put down every time I had to, and it played on my mind until I could get back to reading. A haunting yet beautiful page-turning story of magical/realism, and of love and death, power and evil, persecution and freedom, and all the heart-tugging components in between. I can safely say that it’s my most favorite book of the year!
In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.
Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.
What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.
This instant New York Times bestseller and longlist recipient for the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medal takes place in 1941, during humanity’s darkest hour, and follows three unforgettable young women who must act with courage and love to survive.
“[A] hymn to the power of resistance, perseverance, and enduring love in dark times…gravely beautiful…Hoffman the storyteller continues to dazzle.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES
“Oh, what a book this is! Hoffman’s exploration of the world of good and evil, and the constant contest between them, is unflinching; and the humanity she brings to us—it is a glorious experience.” —ELIZABETH STROUT, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge
“Alice Hoffman’s new novel will break your heart, and then stitch it back together piece by piece. It’s my new favorite Hoffman book.” —JODI PICOULT, New York Times bestselling author of Small Great Things and A Spark of Light
My 5 Star Plus Review:
A haunting journey of survival through darkness, in search of the light.
This is a story that begins in a place in one of the most horrific times of our modern era, l941 Berlin, Nazi Germany, focusing on courage and compassion, interspersed with nature’s beauty and love from both – those who demonstrated their compassion for the persecuted Jews and for the Jews themselves who had so little to survive on, yet still remained something of themselves to give to those worse off than themselves.
By 1941, Hanni Kohn’s doctor husband had already been killed on the street in front of their home. Hanni has only one daughter Lea, and she will do whatever it takes to save her daughter. Hanni knows the struggle to survive will only get worse in Berlin with the Jews having already lost all their human rights, curfews in place, Jews not allowed in public places, and deportation roundups becoming all too common. She knows she cannot flee with her daughter because she won’t leave her bed-ridden mother alone to die, so she comes up with an idea.
Some of Hanni’s most daring missions thus far had been her night time foraging for scraps of food to make what was dubbed ‘hardship soup’ with whatever she could dig up that still remained growing in the ground for that soup. Now Hanni’s idea was to go to the Rabbi’s hidden home with the only jewels she had left hidden in a suitcase lining under her bed with an offering, hoping the Rabbi could buy off a protector who could take her daughter Lea to safety – or where she thought it was still safe – Paris, to stay with her distant cousin’s – the Levi’s home.
The Rabbi’s wife practically shoos Hanni away as dawn was breaking to avoid anyone suspecting anything, when all the while the Rabbi’s ‘gifted’ teenager daughter Ettie overhears their conversation. Ettie too knows she wants to flee, despite her family’s decision to remain in Berlin. Ettie, through spending much of her life eavesdropping on the sacred ceremonies and prayers her Rabbi father has led in secret for years in the basement where the religious men came to pray with the Rabbi daily, decides it’s time to use her own power to help both Hanni’s desire and her own – to escape Berlin.
Ettie’s rabbinical knowledge of Jewish folklore and mysticism through her gift from God and her father’s teachings, ignites the idea she shares with Hanni- to construct a ‘golem’ – A figure built from clay and water from the nearby river, in the form of a human woman with strength beyond any human and a sense of all knowing. This golem would be Lea’s protector until Lea reached safety, then ultimately, the golem was to be destroyed after the mission, because if the golem survived too long, she would become too powerful. Ettie would join Lea and ‘Ava’ the newly built golem, on their escape, taking with her, her younger sister Marta to help save her too.
Ava is all knowing. She knows all thoughts and intentions and with the strength of any unmatched human, can hear and see angels, and speaks to nature. Ettie had mentioned that the golem wasn’t human so would harbor no emotions, her only mission was to keep Lea safe – but this story will prove that wrong. Ava could also see the black angel of death and instinctively knew when he had taken another life of someone she knew. “There’s nothing to go back to,” Ava remarked to herself when she heard the words in her head, “It was a dark dream. It was nothing like the world that we knew. Stones, murder, lice, greed, horror, birds falling from the sky, the grave you made for others, the grave you made for yourself . . .Keep her safe.” These were the words Ava heard in the moment Hanni arose in the World to Come.
When the day came that all forged documents were ready for travel, Lea and Ava were to meet up with Ettie and her sister Marta to board the night train to Paris. Little did they know that Paris was fast becoming no longer safe. And once they arrived in France we’ll meet new characters who play integral parts to this story. The story will have us both cheering and aching for these heroic and complex characters with different desires, yet all sharing the same goal -survival.
This story isn’t necessarily focused on the prisoners of war in concentration camps, but of the human spirit and efforts to survive facing those atrocities by those who’d do anything in their power to keep from becoming one of the deported, and their plight to survive through hiding, resisting and mysticism, all while remembering with an ache living in their hearts for those they left behind and ultimately, those left to parish. This is a story that will stay with you long after you’ve read it, and the kind of book I will most definitely be reading again. I am now a huge Hoffman fan! Kleenex nearby #recommended.