Author puts fantasy twist on Holocaust story

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Henry Clayton Wickham

The best fantasies tell us something about our own reality. In her literary debut “No One Is Here Except All of Us,” Ramona Ausubel tells the story of a remote Jewish village in Romania that willfully ignores the horrors of World War II, in favor of a world where, as protagonist Lena puts it, “No one exists except us and God.” When the only survivor of a massacre washes down the river from a village upstream, the whole village of Zalechik panics.

“We need a story,” the survivor tells them. “When there is nothing left to do and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again.”

The villagers set about crafting the stories they need to survive, and, at first, their dead-serious thought experiment seems ripe with potentially profound messages. But, despite her eloquent prose and the intriguing fable-like quality of her book, Ausubel doesn’t capitalize very well on the potential of the world she has created.

Whereas the magic of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works say something true about our experiences, the mysteries of Ausubel’s novel don’t have much to say about real human joy or pain — at least nothing too interesting. The novel is chock-full of beautifully described, yet strangely lifeless moments of mourning, prayer and longing.

Though the novel does not have much of a living pulse, it follows an interesting narrative arc which becomes more engaging and less idyllic, as it progresses. At first, all is well in the reinvented world of Zalechik. The villagers throw the stuff of the old world into the river — watches, clocks and radios — and begin recording every prayer uttered in the town and set up “appreciation” committees. There is the “Committee for the Appreciation of the River” and the “Committee for What We Have and Where We Have It.”

However, when the stranger and the town jeweler are discovered with a forbidden radio at night, cracks break in the fragile walls of the new make-believe world. Not soon after, Italian soldiers arrive and kidnap Lena’s husband.

In the novel, Ausubel’s idyllic brand of magical realism is artful and rich with themes about belief and the way we craft stories to survive. “As I wrote through deeply sad stories, I found that hope was in the telling,” Ausubel said on her website. As a story about the Holocaust, the book is an original attempt, but not a very successful one.