A penchant for defensive fabulism has long marked the literature of the shtetl. Storytellers from Sholem Aleichem to Isaac Bashevis Singer have portrayed Jewish villagers seeking refuge from untenable horrors by retreating into collective myth. Ramona Ausubel’s debut novel offers a lush, if at times exasperating, addition to the canon.
“No One Here But All of Us’’ opens in 1939 in the isolated Romanian outpost of Zalischik, whose nine families, apprised of the war soon to envelop them, decide to remake the world.
The problem with this plan, dramatically speaking, is that “[l]iving in the new world would not turn out to be that different from living in the old one,’’ as our narrator, 11-year-old Lena observes. The inhabitants craft a folksy creation myth; a few swap marital partners. But because there’s no intrusion from the outside world - no planes flying overhead, no omens of warfare - the reinvention comes off as an indulgent game of make-believe.
Ausubel’s prose is frequently luminous, her eye for detail striking, from the trees “shooting buds out of all their pointed ends’’ to an “onion skin like a piece of stained glass in the sunlight.’’ But too often, her characters speak in stagy aphorisms and behave in ways that are psychologically dubious.
Lena, for instance, presents herself as an intelligent and spirited girl. But she raises no objection when her parents decide to give her away to her childless aunt and uncle, not even when her aunt, an obvious hysteric, insists she behave like an infant. Lena is eventually married off to a callow boy who fathers her two sons but proves incapable of shouldering the duties of adulthood.
The first half of the book is, to put it bluntly, a lovely diversion.
When the war finally invades Zalischik, Ausubel captures the ensuing chaos with piercing lucidity. A group of soldiers corner the villagers, who cling to one another. “The sound in the room was of the fathers struggling to hold,’’ she writes. “The mothers went next. When one began to cry loud enough to be heard, the room cracked. The children and the grandmothers and the uncles and the cousins. They cried because they cried. They cried because across the room and next to them, there was the sound of begging.’’
A bit later, the few surviving villagers dive into a river. “They were all strangers who had known one another a long time ago. Oh, hello, they thought. You look so familiar to me. I think we were friends when we were children . . . They let themselves fall, and the surface of the earth was liquid, and they could pass through it. The people gasped with the shock of the water’s cold; it felt like coming home.’’
From this point on, the narrative splinters. One strand follows Igor, Lena’s soporific husband, who is transported to the island of Sardinia, where his lonely jailer befriends him. Igor spends his days swimming in the sea, playing checkers with the natives, eating like a prince, and napping. There’s a dreamy, lyrical quality to his idyll, but not much emotional resonance.
The true heart of the book concerns Lena’s flight from her village, undertaken with her precocious 4-year-old Solomon, and her newborn. For weeks, she wanders through forests and farmland with her boys, the three of them slowly starving to death. Her younger son perishes.
A Russian farmer and his wife eventually take them in. There’s a wrenching scene in which the boy throws up the soup he’s been given, and his mother, deranged by hunger and fear, attempts to gather up the remains so they will not be accused of wasting food.
Later, the farmer tells Lena that he and his wife want to keep Solomon, claiming that this is the boy’s best chance to survive the war. In exchange, he promises Lena money, his wife’s papers, and safe passage to the city of her choice.
I had trouble believing that Lena - having lost a husband and son already, and been wrenched from her own parents - would consent to this arrangement, particularly given that the farmer later rapes her. But she does, without much internal struggle, and sets off across a ravaged landscape to find her ruined village.
Lena eventually seeks out a second new world - America. On the ship over, a fellow Jew informs her that Hitler has killed himself, the camps have been liberated, the war is over. “ ‘I don’t know what those things are,’ I admitted.’’ It is in this tiny moment that Ausubel most powerfully renders Lena’s towering sense of dislocation. She is a refugee not just from her kin and hearth, but the larger calamity of history itself.
As a stylist, Ausubel is one of our most promising young writers. Her debut is an ambitious nod both to her family history and to the rich tradition of Jewish fabulists. But her most affecting prose, it must be said, is born not in flights of imagination, but those passages when her characters confront the crushing power of the real.Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of the story collection “God Bless America.’’ He can be reached at email@example.com.