If you haven’t read Ramona Ausubel’s new book, No One is Here Except All of Us, you don’t deserve to have eyes.
I preordered this book months ago, and what I got was so much more than I expected. This was the first I’d heard of Ausubel. My collection of WWII books and my friend’s eagle eye whilst online browsing brought it to my attention. I owe Mugs Brand a very large glass of scotch to thank her for telling me about this book.
If you think back to a time in your childhood when something terrifying and menacing encroached upon your lives, even if you didn’t fully understand it, you probably remember hiding under your blanket or telling yourself stories to make yourself, or others, feel better. Eleven-year-old Lena is the one holding the reigns in this unusual, heartbreaking story. Though she doesn’t fully understand what’s happening when people in her village receive news of Hitler and the Nazis approaching, she can smell the fear that fills the room. And who better to lead a group of villagers, all her senior, into a new world than an imaginative, sensitive, extraordinary little girl?
When the group decides to create a New World, leaving behind everything they know and love and embarking on a new journey with just each other and their tiny little river-surrounded community, Lena is suddenly less a child and more a person to be respected.
Ausubel writes as a person who doesn’t just see or feel things, especially not as others do. Her words slide over your tongue and fit into spaces you’ve never filled before. It’s not a book you can just pick up and read and set down. It’s like a movie that plays in your mind, as each word fuels another movement. It’s reading a line and wishing you didn’t have to keep reading, because you feel so terrible for these characters, but being unable to stop reading because you can’t get enough.
Ausubel’s descriptions and thoughts are unparalleled. She doesn’t write because she has a pen and paper; she doesn’t tell a bedtime story. She writes because she has no other choice; this kind of story doesn’t come from someone who simply sat down and jotted it on paper. It’s so much more than that. And reading it before bed only means you’ll be reading for hours, and then you won’t be able to sleep at all because you have to know what happens. And even then, you sit and think about everything you just read.
There’s devastation and heartache and things you can’t imagine going through. They eluded the Nazis for years, but they still had to endure pain. A pain anyone would choose over being captured by sadists that are the Nazis, but a kind of pain nonetheless. They find a stranger on the river bank and bring her into their world. They think of her like a Father or something; someone they can go and talk to, pray to. The stranger has an entire lifetime of pain at her back, but she’s alone now and she has nowhere else to go, so she stays with the villagers.
You’re present as Lena’s uncle, desperate for a child for his wife that he can’t seem to provide, begs his sister, Lena’s mother, for one of hers. Lena’s sister is taken from them, but their heartache lasts only until the next night when she is brought back. Too big, says the aunt. Regina is too big. When they decide to take Lena instead, it’s like a twist in your chest as her family allows her to be given away to this aunt and uncle. And something in Lena changes. She doesn’t yell or refuse to go. She accepts actions and decisions for what they are, and she believes that with this New World they’ve created, she simply must go.
But her pain is paramount. You watch, in your mind, as the brokenhearted and slightly deranged aunt forces Lena to be the baby she always wanted. She must learn to speak, walk, and eat. There’s a nauseating moment where the aunt forces her breast into the 11-year-old’s mouth, convinced that she is a hungry baby. I saw that sort of thing on a BBC documentary once, and it was just as gross to read it and see it, than to actually see it on a TV.
All of these experiences that Lena has are only half of what makes the story. The other half comes solely from Ausubel’s words. Her syntax is phenomenal. She is one who has such a firm grasp on her own vernacular, that you can’t imagine going back to reading other books. Words, for her, are every color of paint, and she is the paintbrush. The only capable artist.
I finished the last half of the book in one night. Everything just kept getting more and more unbearable for Lena. When her little village, their New World, is finally discovered, her husband is taken. Only her husband. Desperate, Lena tries to go after him but is stopped. With this devastation comes a small gift. Lena’s real mother, Perl, comes to her. It’s the first time they’ve been able to really talk to each other since Lena was given away several years earlier. Now here she is, probably 17 or 18 years old, with a four-year-old and a newborn, and her mother pushing her out the door. Only this time she’s pushing her to safety. She begs Lena to take her grandchildren and run. They manage only a few seconds of mother-daughter time; time enough for Perl to tell Lena that she has always been her mother, no matter whose house she was made to live in for those lost years. And then Lena is gone.
Lena’s real pain is just beginning. She is not a big or overly strong girl. But she is the mother of her boys. Her newborn hasn’t even yet been named. Day after day, they trudge through the trees, looking for something. Anything. They survive by eating tree bark and skinned rabbits and even the hide of a horse, tough and furry. Weeks go by and they are starving. When they come upon an old mattress in a field, her oldest son, Solomon, begins to jump on it. Such a simple childhood game, but he’s been denied his childhood since leaving their village. Lena lets him jump and jump, but Solomon is weak and starving. Soon he’s laid out and breathing hard, unable to play anymore.
When Lena wakes up the next morning, she goes to bring her baby into her arms. Except he’s not her baby anymore. During the night, the baby’s strength wisps away, and Lena is left with the shell of her baby. She and Solomon bury the nameless boy. This pain is new for Lena, and it pushes her to figure something out, fast, lest she lose her other son.
Their answer comes in the form of a Russian couple; a farmer and his wife. They let them into their home, feed them, cloth them. And then the farmer announces that Lena has to go. They will keep Solomon. They will feed him and give him a good life. But Lena has to go. So, again, Lena is forced to part with her family. She decides that the farmer is right; he can keep Solomon fed and healthy. With her, he was dying; starving. Still, the moment when mother and son have to part is a miserable, heartbreaking scene.
The farmer takes Lena to the train station, raping her more than once along the way. He tells her that Solomon is his now, but she can have this baby. This imaginary baby that he believes will come from this filthy tryst. Back then it was believed that one act of sex would result in a baby, no matter what. I suppose that’s why he defiled her more than once; insurance, and his own sick pleasure.
With the papers belonging to the farmer’s wife, Lena becomes Natalya and embarks on another journey. When the Allies come out triumphant, Lena is free to travel wherever she pleases now. She finds her way back to her little village, but all she can do is sift through the wreckage. Sunken houses and broken windows and a barn full of everyone’s belongings. No one is there. Except all of the ghosts she believes surround them all the time. The only silver lining for Lena is the letter she finds, addressed to her, from her husband, Igor.
When he was taken, it was by Italian soldiers. They took him to Sardinia where he’s been living in a prison; it’s only prisoner. He befriends the guard and he now spends his days swimming and having lunch with his guard-friend, flirting with local girls and never going hungry. Naturally, this makes Lena angry. Their youngest son died, their oldest has been given away, and she nearly died herself. And now she’s here, alone, with nothing, except the farmer’s baby, growing inside her. She considers going to Igor, but when she leaves the village and finds a station, she says she wants to go home.
She is sent to America, on a ship with hundreds of others. She spends her time on the ship’s deck, watching the journey and talking to a man named Edward. In the chaos of disembarking, she and Edward lose each other. When her feet touch land, and she is asked to say her name, she starts to say “Natalya.” But she assures her freedom and then responds with the truth. She is Lena.
Here in America, Lena gives birth to her third child. A girl. Chaya, meaning life. She finds Edward and she writes letters to all of her family. In her heart, she knows what happened to some of them. But she knows her sister is still alive, and Solomon, though the farmer and his wife have changed his name, and Igor. She knows this. So she writes each of them a letter, explaining her love for them. This is a way of love passed down from Lena’s mother, Perl, when she was forced to first give up Regina. Lena found the letter and has since been using this way to love her family.
No One is Here Except All of Us is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Ausubel is an incredibly gifted writer, and her books deliver so much more than a story. The taste of her script is unmatched; like lyrics for the most beautiful song. The story itself is incredible. Ausubel based this story on true events, like the village and location and the mattress in the field and one dead son. But it’s the story she wound on top of everything; the words she spun herself, that sew everything up together. Without one, you couldn’t have the other. Not the same way.
No One is Here Except All of Us is not to be missed, or skipped over, or ignored. It is nothing short of brilliant.