The World That We Knew – by Alice Hoffman – independent book review – Historical Fiction (Germany)

Alice Hoffman is one of those authors that never disappoints. Yes, she is a talented storyteller who is able to make even magic and mysticism believable. But her true gift is creating characters with souls. In this novel, she explores how war impacts and changes a small group of fictional people. And by doing so, she makes so much of the complexity of World War II more digestible and understandable. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

As soon as I started reading, I was immediately absorbed by the lives of the people I met. In one Berlin family of successful and cultured Jews, I worried about their failure to recognize the danger of the mounting government restrictions. In another, I identified with the intense fear of one mother who flaunts deep religious tradition in order to save her child. In a third, I met a rabbi’s teenage daughter who believes she is the only one who can protect her younger sister and imagines the war will give her the opportunity to finally do what she was born to do — fight.

There is also young Lea, hiding out with distant relatives or in remote schools, and her unfolding love-hate relationship with her fierce protectress, Ava. The two spoiled sons of a prominent mathematician, lazy Victor and star-student Julian, who find their paths diverge sharply when the war comes. A quiet country doctor, hiding his own private sadness, while trying to keep villagers alive. And a heron that acts as a homing pigeon.

As the book progressed, each of these characters came to represent so much more than that one person’s story. Instead, Hoffman skillfully uses each one to illuminate many of the deepest themes of wartime. Like the universal sacrifices parents willingly make to save their children. Or the blasé nature of Nazi arrogance and brutality. The risks so many non-Jews took to protect strangers. The randomness of loss and death. How survival can depend on simply having someone to live for. And how some individuals seize the opportunity of war to become stronger and braver people, while others give up. And even, what it ultimately means to be human.

Alice Hoffman

This is a powerful, suspenseful, disturbing, and unpredictable read. And it’s going to stay with me for a long time.

More about the author, Alice Hoffman.

You may be interested in my reviews of other books by Alice Hoffman:

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

The Marriage of Opposites

The Dovekeepers

Also, there’s Hoffman’s four-novel Practical Magic series, which I loved:

Magic Lessons

The Rules of Magic

Practical Magic

The Book of Magic