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The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

Published by Simon & Schuster on September 24, 2019

This is only the second Alice Hoffman novel that I have read and I now realize that I am not her target audience. I am sure that audience will appreciate The World that We Knew more than I did. The novel is grounded in the superstition of religion, set in a world that humans share with unseen angels, where to speak the secret names of God causes lips to burn. Stories that depend on religious mythology might be more meaningful to readers who embrace religion than to readers who view mythology in fiction as a subset of fantasy. With few exceptions, I prefer the kind of fantasy that builds a separate world, one that stands apart from reality. The World that We Knew is an uncomfortable mix of the real and the supernatural. I suppose the book might be seen as magical realism, blending reality and fantasy to invite the reader to find beauty in the midst of ugliness, but if the beauty isn’t real, the invitation only emphasizes the ugly horror of reality.

In 1941, after killing a German soldier to save her daughter Lea from rape, Hanni Kohn decides to send Lea away from the growing threat to Berlin’s Jewish population. An elderly neighbor advises Hanni to visit a rabbi and ask him to make a golem to protect her daughter. The rabbi’s wife will not allow Hanni to speak to the rabbi, but the rabbi’s daughter knows the secret to golem creation and is willing to be bribed.

The golem is fashioned as a woman and given the name Ana. She is grateful to her maker for the chance to be in the world, but her devotion is to Lea. Tradition requires a golem to be destroyed before it becomes too powerful, but Ana loves being alive and at a later point in the story, contemplates running away. The prevailing belief is that Ana has no soul since she was not made by God. Killing a self-aware being who is otherwise indistinguishable from a human is not supposed to be morally troubling, at least to people who believe that the soul has an independent, God-made existence. I give credit to Hoffman for exploring that question (as science fiction writers have long done, and in greater depth), asking whether every living thing might have a soul. A character who considers dogs and doves simplistically concludes that “if you could love someone, you possessed a soul.” I would have been happy to see the philosophical golem behave selfishly by yielding to her instinct for self-preservation (selfishness, Hoffman tells us, is the first human trait a golem acquires), but like every other character in the novel, the golem’s actions are predictable.

Ana and Lea depart on a train, watching other Jewish women meet the Angel of Death as they try to escape from Germany. The story branches out at that point to follow both Lea, who is sheltered by various people in France in between hair-raising escapes, and the rabbi’s daughter Ettie, who abandons Orthodox teachings and adopts a new persona in a French village with the laudable but improbable goal of joining the Resistance and exacting revenge against the Nazis.

Lea and Ana crash the home of Lea’s distant cousin just as their maid, Marianne Félix, abandons the family in the belief that they do not “understand their slow disenfranchisement and the erosion of their rights.” Marianne returns to her family in the countryside near Lyon and eventually helps the Resistance. Hers is another branch of the story, joined with the story of a resistance fighter named Victor. A final branch is a love story involving Ana and Victor’s brother Julien, who find an unlikely way to tell each other to stay alive even after they are separated.

Holocaust stories are important, but they have often been told. Except for the addition of a golem and other elements of magic, and apart from Hoffman’s graceful prose, this one does little to distinguish itself from similar stories. In fact, the Holocaust is largely relegated to the background.  I understand that writers rely on the supernatural to illuminate the natural world (even when the world becomes as unnatural as it did during the Second World War), but I can’t say that I am a fan of that device here. The golem, the glowing angels that occasionally surround her, and the birds that do her bidding transform a story of gritty realism into a tale that might be found in a comic book.

The relationship between Lea and her mother-surrogate golem struck me as hokey, although other readers might find it touching. The two love stories, one tragic and the other not, are predictable. Ettie’s storyline is both predictable and too improbable to accept, even in a story that includes a golem who speaks birdsong. The novel’s final chapters rely on a string of coincidences to bring characters together. In the end, the novel isn’t even true to the mythology upon which it builds. Hoffman changes the nature of the golem to make a point about what it means to be human, but I don’t know that it makes sense to both accept and reject a myth.

The Angel of Death, the golem, the ability to foretell the future, chatting with birds, fortuitous coincidences, all in jarring contrast with the harsh reality of the Holocaust, didn’t juxtapose well for me. Layer that with trite pop song pronouncements about the power of love, and it was all just too much. Hoffman’s prose is beautiful, to be sure, and the story will certainly appeal to fans of romance fiction who have the ability to suspend their disbelief that a magical world could coexist with the greatest evil of the twentieth century, but I’m not that reader. I therefore recommend the novel only to fans of romance fiction and magic, and only then because of the strength of the prose.


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