WWII fiction has glutted the market, but Hoffman’s unique brand of magical realism and the beautiful, tender yet devastating way she explores her subject make this a standout. Her settings, from Berlin to an isolated mountain village and a French convent, as well as every character are fully and vibrantly realized. Hoffman’s use of a folkloric aspect adds a distinctive and captivating perspective to an exceptionally voiced tale of deepest love and loss.
Ms. Hoffman’s remarkable achievement is her innate ability to balance large events of history with intimate personal stories. This includes unforgettable vignettes of many secondary characters ... The World That We Knew is constantly imbued with the terrifying atmosphere of impending doom. But it is also suffused with the everlasting hope of survival grounded in the profound desire for enduring love. Ms. Hoffman conjures an alluring novel that lingers long after it’s read.
Alice Hoffman is a brilliant weaver of magic and the mundane ... In her hands, a story we think we know, from a time we think we’ve extracted every possible detail, can become a soulful new voyage into the heart of the human condition ... a spellbinding tale of love, loss and what it means to endure ... In beautifully precise prose, Hoffman chronicles the experiences of these characters and those whose lives they touch along the way ... Though Nazi-occupied France is an endlessly compelling place to many readers, Hoffman never takes her historical setting for granted. Rather than leaving us to lean on what we think we know, she weaves a fully realized vision of the hidden parts of history, chronicling the stories of people who slipped through the cracks on their way to freedom and the emotional toll that freedom took ... Page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, The World That We Knew presents a breathtaking, deeply emotional odyssey through the shadows of a dimming world while never failing to convince us that there is light somewhere at the end of it all. This book feels destined to become a high point in an already stellar career.
Alice Hoffman’s signature magical realism and lyrical chiaroscuro writing enhance The World That We Knew, a moving story of love and loss and resilience in the face of immense tragedy. As in her rich historical novel of the Masada, The Dovekeepers, Hoffman doesn’t shy away from war’s horrors, but her characters, especially Ava, are keenly aware of the beauties of the natural world and the small pleasures of the everyday ... a dark and lovely fable.
... gravely beautiful ... [Hoffman's] subjects are preteen and teenage refugees on the run from Berlin and Paris, but with them, she conjures up contemporary children fending for themselves after being separated from their parents by today’s horrors ... Her storytelling isn’t seamless. She sends her fictional characters into known history, wedging in pieces of background information that can feel exactly like that. But even as Hoffman the researcher shows her work, Hoffman the storyteller continues to dazzle.
...there’s the classic Alice Hoffman spin ... Hoffman...has never been a subtle writer, but in this milieu her heavy hand shows: From the first scene (a grim near-rape), contrasts of good and evil are too bluntly drawn, and her inspiring heroines lack dimension. At least the author hasn’t lost her feel for a fine-tuned plot.
When this novel focuses on the magic parts of its story, its language is magical ... But the rest of the time, when The World That We Knew is a historical novel about how four Jewish teenagers struggle to survive the Holocaust, it’s pedestrian ... Luckily, the plot is a page-turner ... The novel is also saved by the passion of its non-magic theme: the depth of a mother’s love ... As with many adventure novels, there are too many characters to keep track of. Even worse, the point of view switches frequently, sometimes in mid-paragraph ... The novel’s main weakness, however, is that Hoffman seems to get bored when she’s not writing about magic and just grabs the nearest cliché ... If only there had been more magic—not just in this novel, but also in the actual Holocaust, so that more people could have been saved.
Out of the familiar framework of the extraordinary courage and cunning it took to survive the unspeakable brutality of the Holocaust comes this moving, suspenseful story of love, decency, and fearlessness in the face of evil ... One of America’s most brilliant novelists since her debut, Hoffman uses her signature element of magical realism to tackle an intolerably painful chapter in history. Readers know going in that their hearts will be broken, but they will be unable to let go until the last page.
Hoffman employs her signature lyricism to express the agony of the Holocaust with a depth seldom equaled in more seemingly realistic accounts ... everyone in the large cast of supporting human characters—as well as the talking heron that is Ava’s love interest and Azriel, the Angel of Death—becomes vividly real, but Ava the golem is the heart of the book. Representing both fierce maternal love and the will to survive, she forces Lea and Ettie to examine their capacities to make ethical choices and to love despite impossible circumstances ... A spellbinding portrait of what it means to be human in an inhuman world.
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.