During the Holocaust, a Romanian village tries to seal itself off from the world.
Ramona Ausubel's first novel, "No One Is Here Except All of Us," is a poetic fable about a part of history after which some people say poetry is an obscenity. Beginning at the start of the World War II and set in a remote Romanian shtetl, Ausubel's book describes a world where denial and creation merge.
The Jewish residents of the tiny village of Zalechik, terrified by news of approaching war, decide to use their remoteness to their advantage. They declare the outside world nonexistent and decide to make the village, literally, their world. They attempt to create this world anew with lists and paintings, declarations and arrangements. Like any act of art, the survival value turns out to be nil, but the act itself is mad and beautiful, as is Ausubel's incantatory prose.
The protagonist in this fable is Lena, a young girl of strangely indeterminate age: At around 11, she is sent to live with her childless aunt and uncle, and her mad aunt insists that she is an infant, who will grow just as fast as she, her aunt, decides she should. She insists on treating Lena, at first, as an infant. This kind of denial is rife in the village of Zalechik, and it involves not just denying what is, but putting things in its place:
A preteen becomes an infant, the barn a temple, a tarp is painted with new constellations, and most of all, as in any new world, things are named anew:
"This is a street ... we use it to get from one place to another. ... This is a rock. ...This is a hand. ... To touch is when you put one thing against another thing."
In moments of great fear and sorrow Ausubel's villagers also name things, as when Lena and the starving children run through the fields in secret, listing all of what they have: "Wheat. Mud. Mother. Stars. Stars."
There is a reason for all this creation and naming, because one of Ausubel's questions is about God -- present or absent? -- and more than that (for who can even start to ask that question coherently?), the belief in God. Is God present even in terror, in sorrow, in loss? Even when they are about to die at the hands of people they don't know are Nazis, the villagers keep naming things: their memories, each other, the things and people they have loved. It's inadequate, of course; in the face of separation people in the novel are prone to say to each other, "I almost remember you."
Ausubel's fable-like tone is effective in creating a sensation of tale and dream. For conveying the full horror of the events surrounding the Holocaust, it is less so, but this isn't what she's trying to do. Instead, she is comfortable reshaping, in a safe time and place, stories that were handed to her, using her rhetorical and narrative skill to create something that can be carried without cutting the one who carries it.
This is the way that stories are handed down, becoming both weightier and more distant with each telling. Ausubel's tale may deny the full brunt of horror, but so do dreams, and so do fables. The important thing, in this book at least, is the idea of telling, and having someone to tell, the story.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."