Published by Riverhead
Publication date: February 2nd 2012
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Historical, Magical Realism
That one world is at war does nothing to interrupt the patient churning of peaceful years someplace far away.
There are so many kinds of fiction and so many ways an author can draw a reader in. Some appeal to the masses and write a quick easy read and some require more from their readers. No One is Here Except All of Us is a unique book and so, not easy to review. It’s the story of a Jewish village in Romania, on a small peninsula, that, as word of World War II reaches them, decide to close themselves off from that world and create their own. Literally. The flooding of the river makes this a physical possibility as the only road into their village is lost and later covered with brambles. The rest of the world is constructed by the villagers themselves, starting with the ‘rule’ that all the history that came before no longer exists. And so begins a tale that’s both fantastical and very real. The narrator is Lena, an 11-year-old who, in one of the first acts of the new world, is given by her parents to her aunt to be raised as her child as she and her husband have never been able to have children. Even this kindness is not enough and her aunt insists on treating her as an infant and then suddenly accelerating her growth so that it is decided at age 12 (an estimate, as poor Lena has completely lost sense of time and her identity at this point) that she should be married. She is paired off with Igor, the banker’s 15-year-old son and they begin an adult life as children. Time passes in isolation but the real world eventually intervenes and Igor is kidnapped by soldiers and taken away. Lena feels she has no choice but to go out into the world, with their two sons, and try and find him.
After her departure, the narrative splits into the three worlds of Igor, Lena, and the villagers left behind. Each struggles to find a way to survive with the reality of their situation. For Igor, it is being taken to another country and living by the sea, a prisoner in name only, but with no idea how to return to his family. Lena sets out from the village but finds a countryside so decimated by war she has no idea where she is heading. The decision to isolate themselves now means that she cannot tell who is friend or foe or even the status of the war. The villagers try and continue their fantasy lives but the appearance of the soldiers who took Igor takes it toll and breaches the physical barriers that protected them. Soon enough, they are faced with reality again.
Please exist. We want to believe in You.
People had stopped asking for particulars. No requests for safety, no more hopes of a hole in the floor to hold them, no more wishes to replace one person with the other. They only said, as many times as they could: We are here. We want to trust You. We are here. Please exist. You will certainly watch us today. Won’t You? We are here.
Like any fable, there are parts of No One is Here Except All of Us that demand a suspension of belief, but in the same regard, the characters and their hearts and minds will carry the reader through. Author Ramona Ausubel reminds me of two of my favorite authors, Mark Helprin and Gabriel García Márquez, in that she has constructed a sweeping tale of enough depth that what is fantasy and what is reality are less important than the words. What cannot be denied is that if you take up this book, read and accept its strangeness, Ausubel’s prose is mystical and magical enough to take you through to the end. As is her message.