This was a much anticipated read for me as Alice Hoffman is probably my favourite writer. Most people know her for Practical Magic, but I think her more recent novels have been remarkable. The World That We Knew stands with them. It was sad, unflinchingly honest and strangely magical.
We join Hanni Kohn and her daughter Lea in Berlin at the beginning of WWII.The verbal propaganda against German Jews is now turning into action and after Lea is attacked by a soldier on her way home, Hanni intervenes with terrible consequences. Now Hanni knows she must get Lea out of Berlin, but how can they both leave when Hanni is looking after her elderly mother. Desperately looking for some way of protecting Lea, Hanni falls on the idea of a Golem – a mythical Jewish creature animated from clay. First she approaches the rabbi, who turns her down, but the rabbi’s daughter Ettie is listening and spies a chance to escape home. She assures Hanni she has the necessary power and learning to create such a creature, programmed to protect Lea, but only on the basis that Ettie and her sister can travel with them. They gather river clay, water and blood to create Ava, a strong woman with dark eyes and hair, who will travel as Lea’s cousin. However, all Golems must be destroyed once their purpose is done, so Hanni leaves instructions in Lea’s locket to ensure she can carry this out. Hoffman’s story blends historical fact, outlining the fate of Jews in Berlin and France while the world claimed ignorance, with the fictional story of the four girls. One is lost before they leave the country leaving behind a loved one intent on getting their revenge.
There are other characters in the novel bringing their own story and perspective to the story. Despite having their own narrative Hoffman cleverly weaves their stories together so that they encounter each other at some time during the war. On Lea and Ava’s travels in France we meet Julien, his brother Victor and their parents. As a Jewish family resident in Paris their parents imagine themselves safe from the fate of Jewish refugees like Lea and Ava. At huge personal risk they let Lea and Ava join the household, because their servant Marianne has left that morning. Ava takes to kitchen work while Lea forms a friendship with Juliet. Victor has been mourning for Marianne as we follow her home to her father’s farm in the mountains bordering Switzerland. Victor decides to leave soon after, but his travels take him into the Resistance first where he meets a certain young woman hellbent on revenge. Julien is left behind, when Ava and Lea leave, and he watches as his parent’s assumptions are all proved wrong and they are lead to a stadium in burning heat. They are stripped of their jewellery and other valuables and kept without sanitation or food until they can be transported to the death camps, bewildered and broken. Julien hatches a last minute plan and manages to slip out of the stadium and into the labyrinth of streets until a special messenger gives him an idea of where Lea might be.
We follow these various characters through Germany, to Paris, to a convent where silver roses bloom, and a farm in the mountains where over three thousand Jews are walked to the mountains and freedom. In between the many horrors of war sits the beauty of nature, strangely incongruous and almost mystical in that it carries on without or even in spite of us. I love the audacity of Hoffman’s magic realism in juxtaposing the Holocaust with a mysterious heron who dances in the moonlight, at the river’s edge, with a very unusual woman.
This beautiful novel weaves together the realities of a terrible war, with an element of ancient magic. Hoffman creates a story about the lengths people will go to in order to survive, protect those they love and fight for what they believe in. We also see the amazing healing power of love and forgiveness. Most of all, against a backdrop of the most evil and inhumane act of the 20th century, Hoffman uses the character of Ava to make us truly think about what qualities make us human.
Meet The Author.
Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Dovekeepers, Magic Lessons, and, most recently, The Book of Magic. She lives in Boston. Visit her website: http://www.alicehoffman.com
The Bookstore Sisters
I usually expect a new Alice Hoffman novel in the autumn as she’s so prolific, but this year it’s a short story to keep us ticking over until her new novel arrives.
Isabel Gibson has all but perfected the art of forgetting. She’s a New Yorker now, with nothing left to tie her to Brinkley’s Island, Maine. Her parents are gone, the family bookstore is all but bankrupt, and her sister, Sophie, will probably never speak to her again. But when a mysterious letter arrives in her mailbox, Isabel feels herself drawn to the past. After years of fighting for her independence, she dreads the thought of going back to the island. What she finds there may forever alter her path—and change everything she thought she knew about her family, her home, and herself. I’m a lover of books about books, and since the words I keep hearing are ‘relationships, charm and magic’ I’m really looking forward to a long bath with this story.
Published by Amazon Original Stories on 1st Nov 2022.