Alice Hoffman has a well-deserved reputation as an author of compelling fiction that informs the mind, beguiles the senses and tears at the heart. Her reputation is well served by her most recent work, The World That We Knew, published in September by Simon and Schuster.
Set in Germany and France during the Second World War, Hoffman has once again created a cast of strong, memorable characters through whom she explores the ultimate issues of human existence. We are asked to consider: In the face of unrelenting, predatory evil, how far can we go, must we go, to try to keep our children, our friends and ourselves from harm’s way? What do self-sacrifice, courage and human dignity actually look like in a face-to-face confrontation with such evil?
The centre of the narrative is a literary embrace of three persons. Lea is an adolescent in Berlin whose mother is so desperate to save her child that she enters into the forbidden world of the mystical dark arts to do so. She seeks out a renowned rabbi to create a golem – a mythological, mud-and-clay creature of Jewish folklore – to keep Lea safe through the Nazi nightmare. Etti is the daughter of the rabbi who actually creates the golem. Ava is the golem.
Not surprisingly, given the characteristics of Hoffman’s literary protagonists in many of her prior works, such as The Dovekeepers and A Marriage of Opposites, the three main characters are women. Since many of the core speculations in The World That We Knew relate to the literal and spiritual creation of life, the existence and nature of the soul, and the unique, quasi-metaphysical bond between mother and daughter, such characters are entirely fitting in this work, as well.
Bold, resolute women are the staple of the book. Indeed, to help her find courage in the various precarious situations in which she finds herself, Etti often invokes her namesake, the biblical Queen Esther, to inspire her to further effort.
The action unfolds around Lea, Etti and Ava, with quickly developing, often devastating, turns and twists, which draw in a wide cast of substantive secondary characters. Together, their respective intersecting storylines comprise the tense, suspenseful, sad and hopeful details of the novel.
Ava is the literal and literary connective tissue between Lea and Etti. In anchoring a story about the Shoah, albeit a work of fiction, around the fantastical golem, Hoffman has demonstrated considerable creative courage. In her past writings, she has also incorporated a sense of magical realism, but it is risky to do so in relation to a subject such as the Holocaust. In Hoffman’s deft, thoughtful manner, however, it works.
Moreover, Hoffman enhances the golem’s pivotal centrality by imagining the world that Ava sees – a universe accessible to Ava, but not to the other mere mortals. It is an invisible domain of hovering angels and hiding demons, of nature more fully explained and understood, of an integrated existence of higher and lower realms, of dimensions that are real to her, but impenetrable to humans.
So sharp are her abilities that Hoffman’s depictions of Ava’s extra-worldly capabilities never descend into new age camp or detract from the horror of the events in which her characters are caught. Indeed, at one of the key turning points in the narrative, Hoffman poses a question about the golem that many readers may ask, as well:
“Now, riding through the dark, she wondered what had happened to the creature who had no choice but to do as she was commanded. She wondered if she should have kept the golem so that her duty was to watch over not one woman’s daughter but all children: the brothers who crouched down in the rosemary before they were arrested, the boy left weeping at the door while his mother was brought to the captain’s bedroom, the children separated from their parents, who had been sent on the trains to the east. Perhaps she should have created a hundred golems, perhaps a thousand, an army to fight on their behalf, each one stronger than a hundred horsemen, all with the mission of saving their people.”
Rather than sigh at the impossibility of the answer, Hoffman continuously reaffirms the question by using the Nazis’ actual horrific behaviour as the story’s factual backdrop. The plot grips the reader by the throat. Its reliance upon accurate historic context tightens that grip. Hoffman interweaves the imaginary events of the survival efforts of the three women with true events during the Nazis’ oppression.
Thus the reader encounters the Nazis and the French police rounding up more than 13,000 Jews, of whom some 4,000 were children, and herding them into the Velodrome of Paris in July 1942. We also encounter the arrest, in April 1944, of all the orphans in the village of Izieu. In addition, Hoffman deftly places much of the storyline among the courageous, mostly Protestant-Huguenot men and women in the isolated villages and farms in the southeastern mountainous region of France.
After a particularly harrowing escape, one of the characters, exhausted and resting safely in the sanctuary of a forest maze, recalls something his father had taught him. An image in the stars above him brings to mind the image of his father and the sound of his voice. “There was an Orion, the hunter who appears in the winter sky with his bow and his dogs so that he could be remembered by those who loved him during his time on earth. Julien imagined that his father lay on the ground beside him, looking upward. Dear father, he said aloud.”
Remembering someone who was once loved is the electric current that courses through The World That We Knew. But remembering those whom we may not have loved, or even truly known, may be humanity’s chief kindness to the past. And as Hoffman implies, this may also be our chief guarantor of the future.