Blurb from Goodreads
In Berlin in 1941 during humanity’s darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Marriage of Opposites Alice Hoffman.
In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.
Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.
What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.
This book is simply perfection.
I was utterly transfixed by the story, by these characters. My heart feels so full after reading this. I don’t know how to put what I’m feeling into words.
I know for many people that magical realism can sometimes take them out of the experience of reading a novel. But here… It worked beautifully. The World That We Knew marries together mysticism with a fairytale quality and grim historical reality so that together they combine to create a symphony of purest human emotion.
The book opens in Berlin in the midst of the Second World War. Hanni Kohn knows that to save her beloved daughter Lea from the Nazi regime that she must send her away. But she knows that a twelve year old girl needs protection and seeks help from a rabbi to conjure a mystical Jewish creature to look over her child. However, it is the rabbi’s daughter Ettie that ultimately helps her and together they create a female golem named Ava who is tasked with protecting Lea with her life.
Thereafter, the lives of Lea, Ava and Ettie become inextricably interlinked and the book follows their journeys and experiences through the Second World War.
I simply cannot praise this book enough. Each of the characters touched my soul in ways that I simply couldn’t have fathomed when I first picked up this book.
Ava… The golem. A creature made of clay with no soul… And yet she had so much more humanity and heart than the people of the Milice (a French militia set up to target the French resistance). How her orders to protect Lea as a mother protects her child evolved into a deeper love is one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read. This book has so much love in it. So much darkness and horrors… But it’s the love that shines bright.
I loved Ettie with all my heart. She was so brave, so vital… A young girl touched with so much sadness and darkness who gave her everything to the French Resistance. Her interactions with Doctor Henri Girard were some of my absolute favourite scenes in the book. To see how they both almost loved each other was so painful but also enriching for the soul. Their stories are a true testament to the inherent defiance of the human spirit.
And then there was beautiful Lea. A child robbed of her innocence. A child who carried a heavy burden of what she must do on the request of her mother… I can’t say more because of spoilers but I just loved the depiction of her inner turmoil. Of how she viewed the world and the values she placed on all lives.
And then there were the other characters…
Victor and Marianne… Young lovers living each day as if it could be their last.
Victor’s brother Julien and his promise to Lea to stay alive…
Monsieur Félix, Marianne’s father, and his quiet resistance and determination…
Each of these characters felt so realistic. I ached for all of them, cried countless times. What this book does is not shield the reader from the evils of war nor cheapens the grim realities in any way with the hints of mysticism… But instead, it really informs the reader. It urges us to never forget what people living during World War II experienced. There’s so much historical fact and careful research intertwined in this story that it is simply nothing short of a masterpiece.
The book explores themes of fear, sacrifice, loss, hope and resistance. But ultimately it shows us both the triumphant nature and the endlessness of love.
An e-copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, Simon and Schuster, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review