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Review | No One Is Here Except All of Us, by Ramona Ausubel
Riverhead, 2012

spacer No One Is Here Except All of Us

Ramona Ausubel’s accomplished debut novel No One Is Here Except All of Us, set principally in a Romanian village during the Second World War, opens with a letter and ends on a prayer. The opening missive, written by Lena, the young narrator of this sprawling, generous novel, includes this proviso: “Ours is a story I know, both the parts I saw with my eyes and the parts I did not. This kind of knowing comes from somewhere in my bones, somewhere in my heart. Someday, your children will ask what happened, and you will tell a new version, and this way, the story will keep living.”

Thus in the novel’s first paragraphs, Ausubel slyly establishes the lyrical, dreamy omniscience of this narrator, giving Lena license to let her story range wide across continents and centuries—from the isolated river valleys of the Carpathian Mountains to the sunny idyll of Sardinia, from Hitler’s bunker to bustling, postwar New York—and to enter the minds and hearts of an entire village of characters, as well as introducing a central premise of this novel: the multifaceted role of storytelling as an act of love, of prayer, of defiant remembering, and, most crucially, as an act of survival.

Early on in No One Is Here Except All of Us, the residents of Zalischik, the tiny, remote shtetl Lena calls home, find their lives disturbed by the first rumors of war: a scrap of newspaper with an ominous headline; the shattering sound of an airplane cutting through the clouds overhead, “grinding her big propeller at the sky”; and shortly thereafter, the arrival of varied bits of flotsam on the banks of the river that hugs Zalischik on three sides—the unmistakable traces of a bombing upstream:

From the muck we pulled two bowls, one jewelry box full of mud, a doll with no legs, a matted sweater, some cut logs, a hand-drawn map of the summer constellations smudged but readable, and a woman. A woman—hair, teeth, feet, fingers all. And she was alive.

The discovery of the stranger—and all she embodies: past suffering and the suffering to come—ignites in the people of Zalischik a frenzied search for protection, some sort of remedy. The villagers, whose weekly prayers have been interrupted by the stranger’s arrival, first seek solace in the stories of the past. In a breathtaking passage, Lena retraces the history of the Jewish Diaspora, starting with the appearance of the first man and woman and following the story of her people through their multifarious wanderings and digressions, triumphs and exiles, in a language grounded in the rhetoric of sacred texts, but also in the wonder and playfulness of folklore: “We began to walk away in a million different directions: some went into the olive-green hills, some climbed over the mountains, some crossed the seas. Dunes collapsed under our feet. We slept in the bellies of creaky ships, disembarked onto unknown soil.” The patterns and cadences of these early pages echo throughout the rest of the novel; Ausubel’s achievement here is to give her immediate story the weight and inevitability—and the lyricism—of scripture.

Of the stranger, Lena tells us, “No one said the word prophet, but everyone thought it.” Few in number, defenseless, marooned in the center of a continent at war, the villagers find themselves at a loss for ideas. It is the stranger, in fact, who suggests a course of action: “We start over,” she says, mystifying the Zalischikers. “When there is nothing left to do, and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again.” This radical notion becomes a driving force behind much of the drama of No One Is Here Except All of Us. The villagers, anxious to deny the existence of the outside world, all its unpredictable violence and misery, turn inward to reimagine their universe, starting with the most basic elements of community—some women even trade husbands—and extending to the sublime, pondering what might constitute a more just God, and what type of worship would best befit such a God. “If we wanted to survive in this story,” Lena resolves, “we had to tell it that way.”

No One Is Here Except All of Us manages simultaneously to serve as both a novel of the Jewish experience during the Second World War and an exploration of more universal realms of human experience, all channeled through the frame of Ausubel’s lovingly crafted Zalischik, weathered and timeless as a village in a fairy tale. Here poetry inhabits the landscape with each description of river, sky, field, and wood. Only Lena and her immediate family have names, while she identifies the other villagers simply by their roles within the community: the jeweler, the banker, the barber, the healer, the stranger. Ausubel’s world-building convinces entirely and charms utterly; it helps distinguish her novel from other works written about this time period, these tragedies, and gives her prose a surprising lightness.

Despite the rustic, warmly depicted simplicity of life in Zalischik, No One Is Here Except All of Us, which toys with some of the tropes and flourishes of magical realism but never crosses the line into the fantastic, frequently surprises and even shatters the reader. Lena’s parents, Perl and Vlad, are approached by her uncle Hersh and his wife Kayla, childless, who want what eluded them in the old world: “We all have the right to love something more than ourselves,” Hersh begs his sister, “We all have the right to die of sorrow when something happens to our babies.” Perl, the mother of three, consents, and Lena ends up the adopted daughter of her uncle and slightly unhinged aunt, who insists on pretending that Lena, a girl of twelve, is a newborn baby. The loss and betrayal Lena sees in her mother’s decision resonates throughout the novel, informing and complicating all of the losses Lena will experience, the difficult decisions she herself will have to make.

Lena’s seeming helplessness at the hands of fate—the lack of control she has over her life—defines her character and paradoxically brings her strength. She says, “I felt like an open window through which anything might blow.” This openness does not only bring heartbreak: it also brings a husband, the lovable Igor, and children; it brings her a title and role of her own within the village, The Girl Who Retold the Story; and it brings her closer to the stranger, with whom she shares the bittersweet experience of having lost all that was once most important to her. The stranger herself finds a shy admirer in the jeweler, even as the rest of Zalischik assigns her the task of recording all of the village’s prayers. Here again Ausubel’s novel foregrounds the significance of prayers and messages, though the transcendent is shot through with humor and rue. It emerges that nearly everyone in the village prays for one of six things, which the stranger tallies on a list each day:

Money had two rows of lines. We prayed for the health of ourselves more often than the health of our spouses but less often than the health of our parents. Sex was less requested, probably because we were shy, but almost all of us wanted to win the bet. The final category, the one that made us feel terrible, was this: A prayer that what happened to the stranger does not happen to me.

Meanwhile, Lena’s surreptitious notes to her family resemble nothing so much as delicate shards of prayer in free verse: “Vlad, This is how I love you—mouse, bed, fingernail, missing, hot, fire, lie. I almost remember who you are. This line, “I almost remember who you are,” appears many times over the course of No One Is Here Except All of Us, a bittersweet reminder of the imperative, as well as the impossibility, of resisting the changes imposed on us from outside, of clinging to hard, fast definitions of our own identities, our relationships with others and to the world. These words also might aptly sum up the villagers’ relationship with God, the ostensible recipient of their petitions. The stranger, wracked with a survivor’s guilt, feels unsteady in addressing the divine: “I pray for, she said, but could not name what was missing to a God she had not met. I pray, she said, and it was true.”

While No One Is Here Except All of Us remains agnostic about the existence of God in a world defiled by violence and loss, it also maintains clearly and resolutely through the close of the novel that whether or not anyone is there to receive our prayers, the prayers matterand the stories matterin themselves, in the meaning we place in them: Lena says, “A prayer, in our minds, was like the turn of a wrench or the pounding of a nailit fastened, sturdily, our lives together.” The stranger, surveying the new world the villagers have created, muses, “It was not the purity of this world that [she] loved—it was how hard everyone had worked to believe in it.” The world of Ausubel’s Zalischik encompasses suffering and heartbreak and devastating loss, but leaves space for tenderness and romance, humor and hope. At one point in the novel, describing the beginning of a love affair, Lena says, “There was room for a hundred thousand beginnings and a hundred thousand endings. There was a place for everything that had ever been, because there was a place for the most infinite, indescribable future, too.” Ausubel’s radiant first novel, both a tragedy and a love story, part elegy, part prayer, summons a warmth and richness of vision exceptional in a young writer. Through her capable storytelling, the reader discovers, as one character does near the end of the novel, that “Everything, even the farthest-off places, existed.” For the Zalischikers and for us, “The view ahead [is] endless.”  end  

Ramona Ausubel is the author of the novel No One is Here Except All of Us (Riverhead Books, 2012), which won the PEN Center USA 2013 Literary Award for Fiction and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and the short story collection A Guide to Being Born (Riverhead Books, 2013). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, One Story, and Electric Literature, among others.

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