I received a complimentary ARC of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew is unforgettable. Set during the years 1941-1944 and featuring several different perspectives, The World answers the question of what we have to live for in a time of terrible loss and sorrow: love.
The book opens in Berlin, where Hanni’s husband has recently been murdered and her pre-teen daughter, Lea, attacked. As a Jewish woman, Hanni knows that her daughter will be safer somewhere else, but she also feels that she can’t leave her elderly mother behind to travel with her. In her desperation, Hanni pays someone to create a golem—made of clay, able to speak and to protect but bound by her master’s wishes—to travel with her daughter Lea. After the war, Lea must kill the golem, whom they’ve named Ava.
The juxtaposition of someone—Ava—being born into a world where so many are killed and dying is stunning. Devastating. Because Ava’s so very happy to be alive, even as horrific things are happening and even as she fears for her Jewish charge, Lea. Hoffman heartbreakingly complicates this, too; because Ava knows that her greatest responsibility, her obligation, her desire, as she comes to know Lea, is to keep Lea safe no matter what, an act which will eventually necessitate Ava’s own death.
Tangled in this story of Lea and Ava are other stories too: of Lea and Julien, a young man she meets in Paris who becomes a lodestar; Ettie, the golem’s creator; and Marianne, a former servant who worked in Julien’s home. Each story is beautifully told; each one tells a version of war where no one is unaffected, where everyone pays a great price but there is some redemption to be found, too.
The World that We Knew had my heart in its hands. It’s a big story—one that includes folklore and the concrete details of a people suffering and surviving, one that feels very much rooted within a particular time period and also part of a larger story about how humanity at its worst, and best, treats others. And it’s ultimately a celebration of love, of the sacrifice that love sometimes demands and the bravery that it can engender.
Give me that HEA, please.
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