The world is awash with World War II novels, many of them very fine indeed. But if you only have room on your shelf for one such book, make it this one. Magical realism author Alice Hoffman has outdone herself with this heartfelt tale that begins in Berlin in 1941, where every day Jews are being sent to their deaths. Living through this nightmare is widow Hanni Kohn, who's desperate to get her 12-year-old daughter Lea to safety – and here's where the magic begins. Hanni tracks down a rabbi who's renowned for making golems – magical creatures of Jewish myth created from mud and water. He refuses to help but his daughter, Ettie, who has watched her father in action, steps into the breach. The two women create a golem different from any that has existed before: a woman called Ava whose only mission is to keep Lea safe.
As payment for her expertise, Hanni gives Ettie enough money for passage on the night train to Paris. Lea and Ava, posing as Lea's cousin, travel with Ettie into the unknown and, almost immediately, disaster strikes.
The writing is exquisite and the menace of Nazi-controlled Europe takes on a Brothers Grimm air at times. You know you're in the hands of a master storyteller when such otherworldly elements as golems and angels contribute to a story that's utterly believable.
The World That We Knew is an exploration of good and evil set in a war that was all too real not so long ago. Although the subject matter is undeniably dark, light shines through with numerous characters who are immeasurably kind.
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