Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
No One is here Except All of Us
By Ramona Ausubel
Penguin Au (Viking)
Paperback, 336 pages, RRP:$26.95, ISBN-13:9780670076802
The year is 1939, and the Jewish residents of the remote town of Zalischik in Romania keep quiet, hoping to be forgotten. Their isolation has kept the villagers safe, and their world appears idyllic with its routines and certainties, but things are about to change. First their healer reads an old newspaper that tells them that, as Jews, they now considered pests to be exterminated. Then a woman, known thereafter as the “stranger” washes up alive on their riverbank after a storm. The stranger has somehow survived the death of her family, and the villagers welcome her as a holy woman, but they also know that she is the precursor of their own imminent destruction. The villagers decide to start the world over, as if it were the first day ever, denying history and tragedy. For a while they are successful, protected by their isolation, but they can’t hide forever and eventually their true timeline catches up with them.
No One is Here Except All of Us is a fable told from a grandmother to her grandchild – a story of pain, loss and healing that unfolds from the perspective of Lena, who begins the story as a precious eleven year old girl forced to grow up quickly. In many ways the book is a coming-of-age story for Lena, who uses the power of words to change the nature of what happens to her. Though entirely rooted in the possible, the novel is suffused with magic realism, hinting that, despite the great pain that Lena experiences, she has indeed changed the physical world through her stories. Despite the fact that the story is an old one – made evident in the prologue that puts the reader into the role of newborn Chaya, sitting on the Lena’s lap, there is an immediacy and sensuality to Lena’s experiences which draws the reader into each moment as we feel it happen:
The mud pulled at my fine hairs as it dried. The splitting felt deeper, like I might break down, pieces departing from pieces, until I was a shattered thing and the bugs could carry me away. But I was whole as ever. The only thing I started to lose were tears, unreasonable, unspecific tears. I did not know if I was crying for the loss of something or for the weight of what I had gained. (150)
Throughout the novel, the writing is intense and charged with emotion. The historical fact of the Holocaust happens in the periphery of this story – driving the narrative and events without ever becoming the focus. Lena’s husband Igor is captured by Italian soldiers and he’s held prisoner by a man, Francesco, who becomes Igor’s closest friend. Through the unlikely friendship, Igor believes he is living a dream – that his imprisonment is all in his head. Igor’s story becomes a second narrative, along with the story of the “Stranger” and the jeweler, who find an odd consolation in one another:
He wanted her to be anything and everything she possibly could be. The biggest wallop of desperation, the brightest sweep of joy. If the stranger were burning hot, the jeweler would have become a lick of fire. If she were freezing cold, he would have become the spear of an icicle. If she were a swamp, he would be algae, growing over the entire surface of her. (258)
Ultimately though, it is Lena’s story, as she escapes the destruction of her people, and travels with her children, hanging onto words as her world becomes increasingly precarious: “Horse, street, lamb, baby, day, night, day.” Lena’s story grows from the particular to the universal as she gives up everything she has known and loved, and finds that she’s still alive, and still connected to all she has lost:
We are the clan of women who love their dearests by giving them away. We are the same mother. The metronome of my heart, working to be whoever each person needed me to be – daughter, daughter, mother, mother—now came to center. Absolutely still. My children were not mine. In the same instant I passed my boy on, my mother took me back. As if the difference in our hearts—mine managing to stay whole and hers broken—had separated us. The instant when the earth’s continents, drifted asunder, vast oceans between them, remember they are made of the same stone. Hardened lava, granite. (322)
No One is here Except All of Us is an exquisite, circular tale that takes us back to where we started – where we all start – at birth, where we create the world afresh. It’s full of wonder even in the midst of the most dire tragedies. Beautifully written, full of pain and poetry, this is a book that opens histories most intense and painful moments and shows what survives: love and DNA.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com