The World That We Knew: Using folklore to explore the darkness hours of human history

I’ll begin by saying that this is probably one of the best books I read last year. In fact it has taken me so long to write a review because I really don’t have the words to say how incredible this novel was. 

This piece of magical realism is set in the Second World War, spanning across Germany and France. 

Three women find themselves tied together. Lea is sent away from Berlin by her mother in a desperate bid to save her from the Nazi regime. Ettie, the daughter of a renowned rabbi becomes a fighter and revolutionary. And Ava, a golem, crafted from earth and sworn to project Lea. 

Each woman makes her way through a world full of loss and evil, continually watched by the Angel of Death. Their paths, and fates, are bound together through the very female acts of motherly (and sisterly) love and in the creation of life. 

The imagination to combine such a dark moment in human history with colourful splashes of fantasy is inspired, and it takes nothing away from the seriousness of the subject matter. Death, danger and loss haunt every page. For all those moments of fantasy Hoffman brings you back to reality as characters lose their lives, witness unimaginable atrocities and face danger. This is no fairytale, and the realism element is most certainly very real and heartbreaking. 

How Hoffman manages to make each detail feel so vivid and real, from a woman being made of clay to her falling in love with a heron, is masterful. She has clearly done a lot of research, into both WW2 history and Jewish folklore, and this springs up from every page. I’d never read any of her prose before but I will be looking to do so in the future!

Whilst this is, as I have said, magical realism there are only a few elements of fantasy in the book. The heroes are largely human, as are the enemies and the events are very much of this world. Having had some time to ponder on this I think that this serves to make the realisation that this is all very much based on reality all the more shocking, sending the message home with a force which might not be achieved through a more literary narrative device. 

It is through the use of magical realism which Hoffam also highlights the hope which each character clings to and it prevents this novel feeling too bleak. And then there is love, different kinds of love between mothers and daughters, between couples and friends, which binds the characters together.

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