There have been so many novels written about the lives of Eastern European Jews during World War II that I've sometimes wondered how an author can possibly find a way to put a unique twist on the subject. Yet, remarkably, Ramona Ausubel has done just that - authored a book about a well-known, well-documented point in history and made it completely original.
No One is Here Except All of Us doesn't, for the most part, read like a Holocaust memoir. The villagers in Ausubel's story are dimly aware of the war raging around them and have heard rumors regarding the fate of other Jewish towns. They decide to do what their tribe has done for centuries when faced with persecution: start over somewhere new. This time, though, there's nowhere they can reach safely, and so they start over in place. One fateful Sabbath they decide that the next day will be the first day of all creation, and they live for the next several years in complete isolation, behaving and believing as if there is no outside world. It's a novel approach to explain a group's reaction to catastrophe, and it lends the narrative a somewhat fantastical quality, feeling almost like a folktale told to children at bed time. This device may have limited appeal for some readers, particularly as the story becomes more unlikely. The spell does eventually break, and at this point the plot takes on a more nightmare-like feel, becoming darker and more tragic, but also engaging the reader's emotions much more fully.
What really makes this book a standout is Ausubel's writing. Honestly, I can't remember reading a more beautifully written book. The author's use of language is marvelously poetic and vivid; nearly every sentence paints a detailed picture. She relies heavily on metaphor throughout the novel, and while I often found her allusions unusual, they were also highly illustrative and apt.
The earth was either dry and dusty or wet and sucking - all the puddles thick with tadpoles... We took paths through the woods where pine needles made a thick perfume. We followed streams, valleys, ridges. We had come to and crossed the first mountain range. We had descended and snaked the valley. Always, there was a new landscape through which to draw a path. Always, the tiny red [compass] arrow. Never did we know where we were. Dirt stuck to our legs, to our hair, buried itself in the pores of our skin. It attached itself to us as if we could save it, take it somewhere better.
This lyrical style does slow the book's pace somewhat. I often found myself stopping to appreciate a vibrant image or striking use of a phrase. But I didn't find these pauses unwelcome; writing this good should be relished.
Even before reading the author's statement at the end of the book, I was certain it was somehow a part of her own family's story. Every sentence echoes back through history and feels immensely personal, and indeed, a major portion of the book (and the most moving) is based on her great-grandmother's life. Ausubel's ability to imbue the text with such intimacy adds to the perception that No One Is Here Except All of Us is a very special book - a private account of one family's lore, the story they pass down to generations to help understand their place in the universe. And Ausubel's readers will almost certainly feel privileged that she chose to share this magical and moving story with them.
Click on the video below to hear Ramona Ausubel discuss the inspiration for her novel and to see photos of the relatives on whom her book is based.
This review was originally published in February 2012, and has been updated for the February 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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