Review: The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

If you’re looking for a book that explores the horrors of the Holocaust but does so in a really beautiful way, I recommend this book. It begins in Berlin, where a mother, Hanna, is trying desperately to save her daughter Lea.  She learns that there is a rabbi in town who knows how to create a golem, an invincible creature who is made from clay.  She doesn’t get any help from the rabbi or his wife, but the rabbi’s daughter Ettie creates Ava on the condition that she and her sister also get help escaping from Berlin.

It’s an unbelievable premise, of course, and one that becomes almost ridiculous as Hoffman points out how many ways it can go seriously wrong (Ettie can basically be struck dead on the spot if the spell is uttered wrongly or the clay isn’t pure enough).  Still, this is a book where magic, idealism, and love meet the horror of the Holocaust, and that is absolutely the best way I can describe it.  Jewish mysticism is quite interesting to me, so I appreciated Hoffman’s take on it. 

What I liked most about this book is that while it’s on the poetic and magical side, Hoffman doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the Holocaust.  She incorporates quite a lot of historical detail in this book, and I’ve always been fascinated by the French Resistance.  And more importantly, she really draws you into the characters of Ettie, Lea, Ava, and the secondary characters of Julien and Marianne. I always think it must be nearly impossible for an author to cover the scope of the Holocaust but Hoffman really conveys that.

That was how evil spoke. It made its own corrupt sense; it swore that the good were evil, and that evil had come to save mankind. It brought up ancient fears and scattered them on the street like pearls.

It won’t be for everyone –Hoffman has a unique style of writing and while I’m a big fan of her books, they can be hit or miss (I loved The Dovekeepers and Blackbird House and didn’t love Marriage of Opposites).  Hoffman can be a bit heavy-handed at times, especially the way she writes about motherhood.  Also she has a way of clearly letting you know what’s going to happen, and it was highly improbable that so many of her characters would meet up with each other as they traveled through France. But then, this is not a book that’s presenting itself as realistic.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Judith Light, and I had mixed feelings about her narration – she has a very distinctive voice which at times was really powerful and at times a bit distracting.  Also I find that books covering a lot of different settings and characters can be easier to read than to listen to.  That said, there’s a nice interview at the end of the audiobook with Hoffman and Light.

I recommend this book to anyone who appreciates good historical fiction, especially about the Holocaust, and who will appreciate magical realism and Jewish folklore.


  6 comments for “Review: The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

  1. April 27, 2020 at 6:50 am

    Well, although I know the myth of the Golem, I don’t think I could handle this in a Holocaust book. Okay, so Chabon talks about escaping from Prague when the Jews of the city try to save their Golem in his Cavallier and Clay, but it never comes alive so…

    • April 27, 2020 at 8:49 am

      It’s interesting that Hoffman frames her golem as a positive figure rather than a negative one – also golems are typically male but in this book she’s female. I don’t know a lot about the mythology myself but I found it very interesting.

      • April 27, 2020 at 11:11 am

        Cynthia Ozick also made a female Golem in her book The Puttermesser Papers (I reviewed it here). If I had known that before I got the book, I might not have read it, but she surprised me with that one.

      • April 27, 2020 at 11:12 am

        But in general, a Golem is supposed to be positive – they’re made to save the Jewish community. But they’re hard to control…

      • April 27, 2020 at 3:39 pm

        You clearly know more than I do about this! Thanks for sharing. In that case, Hoffman’s portrayal is consistent.

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