Reviewed by Sara Hodon
No One is Here Except All Of Us
by Ramona Ausubel
Paperback: 416 pages, February 5, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1594486494
“Once upon a time…”
That famous opening line wouldn’t fit in the majority of modern novels, yet it seems perfectly in tune with the lush, nearly fantastical. yet stirringly real, plot of No One is Here Except All Of Us by Ramona Ausubel.
In a world on the verge of a world war, the residents of a small, remote Romanian village coexist peacefully, abiding by the Golden Rule and supporting one another. As word of the turmoil surrounding them reaches their hamlet, Lena, a young villager and the book’s narrator proposes an idea—take a lesson from the Bible and start the world over again, this time in God’s perfect image. In this new world, people will be protected from war and disease, greed and poverty. The villagers will live within their means, barter with each other for the basic necessities, and hopefully establish a model of peace and harmonious living for the rest of the world.
Besides Lena and her family, the other characters do not have names. They are identified by their professions (“healer”, “jeweler”), almost as if an individual’s name is less important than their role in the village’s collective daily life. The villagers adopt their new reality, facing a few uncertainties in the first few days (should husbands and wives remain married to the same people?), but life remains fairly peaceful until a strange young woman literally washes up on the shore of the river and changes everything. Her arrival is the first in a long strange turn of events that alters everything the villagers believed—or will believe.
Lena’s journey is particularly heart-wrenching. She is introduced as a curious, outspoken young girl whose idea to transform the life of the village is both a blessing and a curse. Along the way she is removed from her family and taken in by her childless aunt and uncle, to whom it only makes sense that, in this new world, they should have the family they’ve longed for. But it’s not an easy transition—Lena is nearly 11 when she leaves her birth family, and her aunt and uncle wanted a baby. This calls for a lot of sacrifice—and, Lena might agree, downright humiliation—to keep her eccentric, if not borderline mentally unbalanced, aunt happy.
While the idea of starting the world over again is admirable, the villagers soon learn that reality, and not the one they’ve created, will find them eventually. It turns out the strange young woman found by the river is a refugee from another village, barely escaping with her life while her husband and family perished. She doesn’t reveal much about her past, but the direction of the book begins to change after she arrives. Small cracks in the delicate armor the villagers have created start to show. Is she some sort of jinx or omen? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps the young woman stands as a symbol for perception vs. reality—no matter how idealistic one chooses to be, the workaday, un-romantic demands of daily life, and very real threats, are always lurking.
Eventually Lena marries the son of another couple in the village, and soon finds herself as a wife and mother when she is barely more than a teenager. This is where Lena’s strength is put to the ultimate test. Threats of the impending war find their way to the village, and after Lena’s husband is seized and taken from his family, she decides to make the difficult decision to take her children and flee. While she makes this decision with her children’s best interests at heart, it is not an easy one. Throughout the later parts of the novel the issue of whether Lena and her husband will be reunited takes on some urgency, as life gets worse before it gets better for Lena. How will it ever be normal again?
This is not the type of novel you can expect to race through or finish in a weekend. Ausubel’s lyrical, beautiful language and disturbingly compelling imagery seize the reader almost immediately. Even if the reader wants to turn away at some of the more graphic scenes, they don’t turn away for long, as Ausubel manages to capture the best parts of the human spirit while not shying away from describing the atrocities of war. It was not completely clear how the villagers felt that starting the world over again—when the more grisly side of reality could easily invade at any moment, shattering any fragile alternate belief system these villagers possessed (and it does)—but its deep spiritual themes and strong narrative result in a book that is absolutely unique. This is a novel that you must put down after every few chapters, just for the sake of savoring and absorbing all of its beautifully complex elements.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com