The World That We Knew
This book is brutal. I say that right off, because if you’ve read one-too-many books about World War II or if you’re ultra-sensitive to them, The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman may not be for you. I wasn’t sure it would be for me. I limit the number of books I read on the Holocaust, because I do find them painful. I read this one because I had loved The Dovekeepers and because I admire Alice Hoffman’s writing.
The World That We Knew didn’t disappoint. Ms. Hoffman’s characters here are often young, mostly Jewish, and either trying to flee from the growing Nazi horror or helping those who are. Survival is a major theme, as is the power of love to bring comfort even in the darkest times. And dark times there are in this book, thanks to vivid descriptions of time, place, and circumstance. It all rings true, thanks to what had to have been extensive background research by the author.
The true strength of this book, though, is in the characters. They come to life in ways that make us care well beyond the tragedy of the times, and their lives are entwined thanks to brilliant plotting. These are real mothers and daughters, real sisters, real brothers.
That said, there are magical elements in this book, as there often are in Ms. Hoffman’s work. Here, we have a golem, a man-made creature that, according to Jewish folklore, is brought to life for a single purpose, after which it is destroyed. This golem’s story is as beautiful as is that of the young girl she is created to protect.
I repeat. This book is brutal. We’re not talking blood and gore, but deep emotional pain, horror, and fear. There were times when I had to put it down and take a breath. The farther I got in the reading, though, the less I was able to stop. And the ending? Masterful.
I highly recommend this book – but in print form. I listened to it, which I often do. You know that. You also know that I rave about narrators who enrich the writing. Think Tom Hanks reading Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House or Scott Brick reading Nelson DeMille’s The Cuban Affair.
The narrator of The World That We Knew did not work for me. Whenever she spoke in the voice of an older character, she droned. Whenever she wanted to indicate fear, she rushed the words out. Volume-wise, her voice came and went, perhaps just a technical problem.
But the fact that, in spite of my frustration with this narrator, I still give this book five stars says something, y’know?