cover image The World That We Knew

The World That We Knew

Alice Hoffman. Simon & Schuster, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-5011-3757-0

Set in Nazi-occupied France between 1941 and 1944, Hoffman’s latest (after The Rules of Magic) is a bittersweet parable about the costs of survival and the behaviors that define humanity. The narrative follows several groups of characters: teenage Julien Lévi and his older brother, Victor, whose family is murdered by the Nazis; Ettie, a rabbi’s daughter, who with Victor and Marianne, the Lévis’ former (Protestant) housekeeper, become members of the Resistance; and Lea Kohn, a schoolgirl fleeing Berlin with her “cousin” Ava. Unbeknownst to most of the characters, Ava is actually a golem—a soulless supernatural protector out of Jewish folklore—and her interactions with them and the ways in which she touches their lives serve as touchstones for Hoffman’s reflections on the power of love to redeem and the challenges of achieving humanity, or retaining it, under such challenging circumstances. Though coincidence governs much of the meeting and team-ups of her characters, Hoffman mitigates any implausibility through the fairy tale quality of Ava’s involvement and her supernatural powers of salvation. The attention to the harsh historical facts makes the reader care all the more strongly about the fates of all of the characters. Hoffman offers a sober appraisal of the Holocaust and the tragedies and triumphs of those who endured its atrocities. [em](Sept.) [/em]