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. No one is here except all of us. (p. 108)
When I first heard of this novel, I thought this would be something of a 1001 Nights story where the people of a small village gather together and tell each other stories to fend off the impending doom. However, that was not quite a correct impression. Instead, it’s in some ways a retelling of the creation story from the Bible with chapters called The Beginning of the World, The First Day, The Second Day etc.
In a small village in Romania in 1939, war is slowly getting closer. When a mysterious strange woman is washed up on the riverbank and tells about how her village was attacked by solders and how she watched her family being taken away, into the forest, the villagers feel an impending doom closing in on them. The villagers’ Jewish ancestors have been forced to move to escape numerous times and the villagers don’t want to do that again. They have no where to go, no place to run: ‘When there is nothing left to do, and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again.’ (p. 24). And so they make a deal with God:
Dear God, We did not start again because it wasn’t beautiful before. The world we make will be much smaller and less glorious than the one you made. Ours will have none of the strange, wild animals – no elephants or tigers, no parrots or blue frogs. It will have none of the exotic spices, no sea, no lakes. We are content to accept this small circle of land as our entire universe, so long as we are safe here. (p. 29)
So the villagers start over. They create a new world with their imagination. Two wives switch husbands – and the couple who have never been able to have a child, gets one. In this new world, they no longer have to be childless. The 11-year-old girl, Lena, who is the book’s narrator, has to say goodbye to her family and becomes a new family’s child. But she’s not a baby and the mother is so very much in need of having a baby, so they make an agreement that she is a baby but that she grows a year every few weeks. However, she doesn’t stop growing when she reaches her own age, according to her new mother, so it doesn’t take much time before Lena is ready to be married and move out on her own – and become a mother herself.
The village stays untouched by the war but of course we all know that it’s only a matter of time before reality overrules fiction and imagination. This separates the book into two sections – the first being the villagers creating their new beautiful dream of a life in peace, and the second following Lena, trying to protect her two young children by taking them on the run, away from the village.
I do not wonder why we were left alone as long as we were. Why our village was skipped by marching Romanian soldiers with orders to send all Jews and Gypsies to the other side of the border for the Germans to deal with. What aches in every part of my body is that we did not hear their cries, the lives ending. Death by machine gun, death by starvation, death by sadness. Along we went, our lives day to day, morning to night. A million mothers, a million fathers, a million sons and daughters screamed at once, and all we heard was the good wind shake the trees out. (p. 143)
I didn’t quite buy the premise of this book, the idea that so many adults in a village would get in on this and go through with it. That in a blink of an eye, women are ready to switch their husbands – or maybe I believe that, but I had trouble believing that everyone in the city went along with the fantasy that peace could be achieved like that, by starting over. Still, I liked the book. I really liked it. The story is beautiful and the idea of creating a new world like that is so pure in it’s naive simplicity.
And it did get me thinking about identity and the power of the mind over reality and faith versus knowledge. I guess it all comes down to perception, what you perceive is reality. How much reality do you need in order to believe in something? And what happens when what you believe in, turns out not to be true? When your carefully constructed reality shatters? And if you just keep on believing in something stubbornly enough, does it actually take on a reality of it’s own?
This is a very atypical World War II book. It follows in the tradition of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful which is about a father trying to protect his son from the harsh realities of a Nazi death camp by creating stories. But even though the focus is in some ways more on the way people handle tough situations and extreme crisis, it has the heart-breaking moments you’ve come to expect from any World War II story on top of the struggles Lena goes through as a young girl, having to completely rethink who she is and what her story is.
I haven’t seen many reviews of this book. I don’t think a lot of people have been reading it and even though I have some issues with it, I still enjoyed it a lot and it made me think. It touches upon subjects that are interesting for us all, I think, and I really hope that more people will pick this book up and give this first-time author a chance.
What do we have now, he asked himself. If we die, every single one of us? The story, he thought, remained. Once told, it does not ever go completely away. It has no throat to slit. (p. 231)
- Title: No One Is Here Except All Of Us
- Author: Ramona Ausubel
- Publisher: Riverhead Books
- Year: 2012
- Pages: 328 pages
- Source: Own Collection
- Stars: 4 stars out of 5
If you liked this novel, you might also like The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, Night by Elie Wiesel, Maus by Art Spiegelman and The Reader by Bernhard Schlinck that all deal with World War II.