The old world seemed to have left us alone. No one had floated by in a boat, trying to sell us a canteen made from a sheep’s stomach. No Gypsies had passed through, rattling their wine bottles and singing their songs. Was it because we had succeeded? Because the new world was real? Perhaps. Or maybe it was because, day by day, there were fewer and fewer people left in the countryside. We had not seen the Official Gazette, which published thirty-two laws, thirty-one decrees and seventeen government resolutions against us. We did not see crosses drawn on all the doorways where Christians lived, while Jewish men were made to dig huge trenches in the cemetery. The world was emptied. Anyone who thought about it would have assumed we were long dead or on our way to death. We were forgotten and we were lost and, because of that, the world we made was allowed to go on.
No One Is Here Except All Of Us is not a book for those who take much of anything for granted.
It’s a novel that stitches you to the heart of what matters within and without it. And when the threads of these prosaic, timeless characters tie you up and ensure you’re secured there, that What Matters floods and falls and the wind is kicked out of it. And if you want to end that story for the evening, if you would rather delight in the relief of the century that surrounds you — the one that hasn’t invited this horror to our door, at least not yet — closing the cover on Ramona Ausubel’s literally stunning debut won’t be enough. Because despite this book’s overarching theme of isolationism, its resulting effect on us as readers can only be the opposite: now that we’ve been told the story of 102 Zalischik Jews who sealed themselves off from the war-torn world with an airtight creation story and their collective imagination alone, we ourselves cannot extract it from what we know to be true. If isolation and belief in the warless New Genesis ever worked, for Zalischik or any other Elsewhere, then who’s to say those villagers are not still tucked someplace that war has never reached? Who’s to say the story isn’t powerful enough to sustain them? Does it change what history we know? And if all of this is true, has Ausubel extended a hand toward untouchable territories – and has that had any hand in their unraveling?
I know this is disorienting and perhaps hardly a review at all. But these are the thoughts you’ll have, too, after you drift through its pages. It’s not a book you can walk away from; the very manner in which Ausubel’s narrative assures the impermeability of memory, so too will you be unable to forget what you’ve found there.
They opened their dark mouths and like the pack that we were, we sounded our collective call. We are all here, our voices said. This is our home, our turf, our valley. We have peed all over it, slept all over it, dreamed all over it, renamed it….I howled and we howled and the dogs sang back to all of us.
It is impressive that none of these Zalischik villagers come off as ignorant, small-minded, or naive as they reinvent their world with utter conviction. It’s an earnest attempt to save everything they know from destruction, and they perform admirably, in the beginning. As a reader, I never once felt like I was reading a Holocaust narrative or a re-imagining of an Anne Frank-esque concealment — what’s been spun here has no comparable mold. We see the consequences early on, though, of how a world so imagined could fail. The unraveled edges grow larger as our 11-year-old narrator, Lena, is forced to trade families in order to give everyone in the village a chance at parenthood, especially those who were barren in the world that preceded them. Lena is passed around to fill the roles her village needs her to, a beacon of hope not unlike the Holy Ghost, and the strain to believe that this is how it always has been is a real strain, one that is felt.
What’s even more amazing about this book is how it continues to stretch farther and farther ahead of you. Every time something pivotal happens, a birth or death that must surely mean the end, it’s instead the beginning of a whole new section’s unfolding, and by the final pages you are so, so far from where you started. You are split and divided and carried down a river with many tributaries. With a deftness that suggests she’s been there, Ausubel enacts the Jewish community’s transition from element to enemy.
The starts slid along and the moon returned a new shape each night, and no one came looking for us. No one caught us or saved us. The days did not count themselves off but circled, dizzy and lost. It made sense to keep track of time only if there was a known end to the journey, which there was not…I let go of the idea of time, of progress, of beginnings and endings, and tried to pay attention only to one fact: we were alive, we were alive, we were alive.
Read it, won’t you? It will soon be everywhere — the exposure Ausubel’s skill deserves — and if you partake you’ll be part of something that’s never once proven impossible. You might, like me, and without thinking, rework your awareness of the history books to include something just like this. You might reconsider what you know about the names and places you were never taught. That’s everything that a work of historical fiction ought to do. We can just count ourselves lucky that our novelist has gone above and beyond that call of duty to bring us something that chills and remains.