The prolific Alice Hoffman is best known for her 1995 novel Practical Magic, and here she again makes use of an element of magical realism. The World We Knew is set in Europe during World War II, first in Berlin and then in France, as war clouds gather and European Jews are subjected to steadily more extreme and humiliating restrictions and laws. Lea is 12 when her mother realises she must send her away from Berlin quickly in order to keep her safe, and to that end she finds a young woman who agrees to make a female golem to go with Lea and protect her. The golem has magical powers but finds herself becoming more human as they find their way through a war-torn world. This book successfully and dramatically combines the horrors of that history with the images and symbols of Jewish mysticism to create a heart-stopping story about love and endurance.
UWA Publishing, $24.99
Two people become friends by chance when they meet in a London cafe: unhappy 17-year-old Ruth, whose mother has died, and life-worn French artist Harry, who survived World War II but whose beloved cousins, a pair of enchanting twin girls, did not. These two characters are used as a means of exploring the nature of trauma and the healing powers of art, but there is no real plot to speak of, and the story is overly fragmented into short scenes and chopped-up chronology. This disquieting novel has its roots in the controversial “sleep therapy” that Australian readers might remember as having been practised at the notorious Chelmsford Hospital in Sydney, where 26 people died. This novel is full of beautiful writing and a lot of painful and difficult feeling, but perhaps the project might have been better served as non-fiction.
William Heinemann Australia, $32.99
After the fall of Singapore, thousands of US troops are stationed in northern Australia as the threat of Japanese invasion becomes all too likely. African-American soldiers are effectively segregated and stationed outside Townsville as labourers, building airstrips, with no form of recreation: no alcohol, no women, and nowhere to chill out. When deadly racial tensions arise, they are between the white and the black GIs, and after an outbreak of deadly violence, the US President sends a young senator to investigate, a confident and arrogant officer by the name of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The story Judy Nunn tells in this novel is based on historical events that were hushed up at the time. It’s a complex tale of racial politics and racist behaviour, as practised on both sides of the Pacific, and it rattles along at a cracking pace with an engaging cast of characters.
The River Capture
The title of this book is puzzling and ambiguous unless you already know that it’s the name of a geographical event in which a faster-flowing river will occasionally take over a slower one, capturing it and often bending it in a new direction. And this is what happens to Luke O’Brien, taking a break from his teaching career in Dublin while he restores the old family home near a sharp bend in the River Sullane in Waterford. Exactly halfway through this otherwise meandering, meditative, and very clever novel about family, Ireland, the past, and romantic love, a wholly unexpected plot bomb explodes. This novel is an overt and complex tribute to James Joyce and it asks a lot of the reader, mainly patience and a familiarity with Joyce’s Ulysses, which it references on every page. Both of those things will be rewarded if you can stick with Costello till the end.
Reviews by Kerryn Goldsworthy