Published by Riverhead Books on Feb. 2012
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Ramona Ausubel’s debut novel No One is Here Except All of Us is the first book I have read so far that was written this year, and I really liked it.
The novel is set in a tiny Romanian village at the outbreak of WWII in 1939. The Jewish villagers, though fearful of the spreading destruction, are counting on their isolation to keep them safe. That is, until a strange woman washes up on the river bank outside the town. The mysterious woman had seen the burning of her own village and the murder of everyone dear to her before escaping into the life-saving water. Privately thinking the woman will be their savior, the village people take her in and fearfully discuss what to do next. At the suggestion of the Stranger and the 11-year-old girl named Lena, who narrates the story, the villagers decide to create a new world for themselves, leaving the old one of war and fear behind.
Of course, starting the world over is not as simple as it seemed. Questions ensue as to what objects belong in the new world: when deciding to record prayers, the villagers wonder, “do we know about ink?” When the first marriage occurs, they question, “do we know about rings?” In the re-ordering of their society, spouses are swapped, and Lena is taken from her family and given to her uncle, whose wife is barren. (“You have some children and we have none,” he says).
The villagers cease leaving the village to trade, and they stop sending and receiving mail. They focus on telling their new stories, recording their prayers and creating constellations in their new temple. The Stranger becomes their prophet, accepting and recording their prayers without ever truly belonging to the village. Withdrawing into their own world works for a few years, during which Lena marries and starts a family, but it ultimately cannot keep the advancing armies at bay. Axis powers eventually find the village, and Lena’s husband is taken prisoner. After another period of quiet, the village is attacked and Lena must flee to save her family.
I really enjoyed this book. The way it was written is really beautiful, reflecting the rich storytelling tradition of Eastern Europe and the biblical stories repeated by the Jews of the novel. The pages are permeated with haunting observations — “We were a houseful of statues, discarded for imperfections. Waiting to be broken to pieces and thrown into the river” — and dreamy images:
“Behind her was the cupped palm of our spit of land; in front the flat, pale arm and the body — enormous and complete — beyond. No mountains marked the edge in this direction, no horizon except the spilling away of the earth itself. A birch forest was a troop of tall spirits in the distance. Fields were watered by our river, siphoned off as veins. Where the road used to lead from our village out, now thorns, blackberries, weeds, and young oaks stopped up the hole.”
I’m sure there are better quotes, but I read a library copy of the book and couldn’t underline! This is what I found during a quick scan of a few pages, but it is quite lovely and really represents the pensive, misty writing characteristic of the novel.
The novel speaks of themes such as remembrance and identity. As the world of the villagers starts anew, Lena struggles with her memories of her life before the world began and with her new role as a daughter to different parents. My heart ached for the confusion she felt as to who she was and who she was supposed to be.
I found this to be a beautiful and harrowing tale of a young girl trying to survive in a rapidly changing world. The novel thoughtfully weaves together myth and the reality of war into a lovely, somnolent, narrative filled with dreamy descriptions and heartrending loss. I particularly loved the ending, in which the story comes full circle and Lena becomes a Stranger to a new group of people. However, unlike the Stranger in her village, I think she will be able to become more a part of her new home and possibly regain some of what she has lost.
“No One Is Here Except All of Us” is a great winter-time read; its soft, quiet tone accompanied by a constant cold drizzle, makes it perfect for reading while curled beneath a warm blanket with a cup of tea on a cold winter (or early spring, depending where you live) day.