Based partially on Ramona Ausubel’s own great-grandparents’ experiences during WWI, No One Is Here Except All of Us concerns a village’s attempts at self-preservation during WWII, focusing on one particular eventual family. The village is a tiny Romanian peninsula made up of nine families whose ancestors wandered the eastern European countryside for decades in search of shelter; Zalischik, where they finally settled, provided food (cabbage, mostly) and, more importantly, isolation from persecutors. By 1939, the isolation is such that the residents don’t know Hitler and have heard nothing of his agenda, and they only learn of the surrounding air strikes when a neighboring village is hit and its sole survivor washes up on their shores.
The survivor, whom the 30 or 40 village residents refer to as “the stranger,” is subsequently imbued with oracular gifts (she knew of the war, after all, so there’s no telling what else she may know). She is God, of course, to them, despite her claims otherwise, and the villagers soon come to her with their troubles, the chief among them being what to do in the face of permanent disappearance. Her somewhat baffling response serves as the engine for the resulting narrative: Pretend like it’s not happening.
Denial is perhaps the stranger’s only operative defense at this point, after seeing her family tortured and her village destroyed, but the speed of the plan’s popularity with the residents of Zalischik is a little suspect. It’s a crackpot scheme for anyone to agree to, let alone an entire community, and especially so when its inciting circumstances take up four pages and its explication only half a page more. An understanding of self-preservation relies on both a definition of what specifically needs preserving (body, memories, wealth, etc.) and a plan for how to go about doing so, both subjects that could occupy the length of any book. Instead, it’s settled in the course of an afternoon, despite the less than convincing arguments supporting it (“Land is limited—the space around us occupied, but no one can limit belief,” the stranger pontificates). By her advice, the villagers, hours after first discovering her, reinvent the world by their periphery, claiming new jobs, new spouses, and a new, apolitical landscape.
The immediate evidence of the book’s lopsidedness does at least allow for a more satisfying reading of it as a concept novel whose ideas govern whatever characters get in the way. With its premise set forth, the rest of the novel chronicles the formation of an awkward family, the mother, Lena, being the ambiguously omniscient narrator who, maybe in the spirit of the prevailing concept, makes up and narrates whole portions of the story that take place far away from her. The concept itself is examined throughout the novel as well, with Lena being forcefully adopted by a childless village couple and instructed to comply with an alternate family history, along with another coerced adoption later on in the story.
The novel’s adherence to its conceptual yard turns what could have been a suspenseful and dynamic narrative into an extended musing on despair and perseverance in which the things at hand end up not mattering at all against the possibility of fictional salvation. What turns out to matter, in any of the novel’s worlds, is not whether something could actually happen, but rather what if it did: What next? What comes next, and next after that, adds up to a lyrical fever dream of a thought experiment not unlike José Saramago’s Blindness, probing a hypothetical scenario for evidence of humanity.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One Is Here Except All of Us was released on February 2 by Riverhead Books. To purchase it, click here.