Ramona Ausubel’s fantastical debut novel, No One Is Here Except All Of Us (Riverhead Books, 2012), is the story of a small Jewish village trying to escape the catastrophe sweeping Europe through the sheer power of imagination, storytelling and belief. Ausubel tells this tale, which has been inspired by her grandmother’s stories, through magical and soulful language. The novel is rooted in the idea of family history and communal memory, and it has a fable-like quality, which is both eerie and innocent.
The story opens with a poetic prelude that offers a glimpse into the mundane life of a tiny village, Zalischik on the northern edge of Romania, where “morning was for kneading bread, milking cows.” The village, we are told, was “complete” and so were the “lives within it.” But all that is set to change in wake of the imminent war.
Thereafter, the eleven-year-old protagonist, Lena, takes on the narrative. Ausubel lends Lena a collective voice to allow her to speak both for the village and for herself.
Lena introduces us to her village on a Friday evening in 1939, where the denizens have gathered at the healer’s house for Sabbath. The very first intimation to the impending change is made here as the healer reads the newspaper that screamed “War, 11 am, September 3rd 1939.” While the adults react with fear, Lena wonders, “What if I die? . . . What if I don’t grow up?”
As the villagers ponder over the possibility of war, Ausubel dexterously captures their varied emotions—hope, anxiety and trepidation: “The quiet that followed was desperate, starving, rabid. No one moved.” Yet, this desperation gives way to faith when Lena reassures herself, “My pink hands, my scratched cheek . . . none of these seemed to disappearing. They were solid and real, indisputable.”
However, their hope of escaping the inevitable is shattered when a woman washes up on the shores of their river. The woman is henceforth called “the stranger.” As the stranger describes how her village and family were obliterated, the villagers are forced to recognize the precariousness of their circumstances. At this point, the stranger suggests “We start over.”
“When there is nothing left to do, and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again.”
Through some enigmatic connection, Lena and the stranger lead the villagers into the realm of fantasy, where they attempt to reinvent history and rewrite their destiny. In this new world, every connection with the known is scrapped, and Lena is given away to her childless aunt and uncle, Kayla and Hersh, who can be parents in this new beginning.
Lena’s life is reprised as she goes from being an infant to young bride so that Kayla can experience the joy of motherhood. The plot here becomes convoluted and somewhat distracting, yet Ausubel brilliantly conveys Lena’s confusion, isolation, and pain of losing her real family in this imaginative world.
The reality, however, continues to unfold only to strike hard at this tiny village and Lena, who is now a young mother and a wife. As soldiers take away her husband, Lena must flee from her village to save herself and her children—and to continue telling the story of her tribe.
Ausubel subtly and artfully prepares the readers for this grim reality that is soon to shake the “perfect world” of this village. The stranger finds a “radio” in the jeweler’s house that brings back the connection to the old world, and the truth about war.
What happens to this small village, Lena, and her children is heart-wrenching. But even in these darkest moments, the novel is infused with hope, determination and the spirit of survival. As Lena gives birth to her daughter, Ausubel assures the reader that this “story will keep living.”