No One is Here Except All of Us, by Ramona Ausubel

In her inarguably ambitious debut novel, Ramona Ausubel attempts to make a myth out of one isolated Romanian village’s experience of the Holocaust. In 1939, when the residents of Zalischik hear the neighboring villages being bombed one night and then discover a woman floating down their flooding river, they decide to create the world anew.

The story is told through the eyes of Lena, the precocious 11-year-old who puts forth the radical idea to start over, as if nothing has ever been known before. Lena doesn’t remain 11 for long; her indeterminate age, lost to the supposedly forgotten past and to the willingly delusional thinking of every adult around her, is one of the book’s major themes.

Ausubel had a great idea for a novel. Unfortunately, her prose style is so overblown, determinedly poetic, and teeth-grindingly annoying that the book is barely more than highly literary melodrama. Ausubel revels in the physical in a way that will thrill some readers and utterly disgust others. List after list of words and sensations populate the pages of No One Is Here Except All of Us, including repetitive descriptions of the feelings inside people’s mouths. Everyone whispers constantly. Variations on the word “soft” appear so frequently that it seems as though the villagers should have simply disintegrated. There are so many metaphors and similes that the book often reads like a poem, with dialogue written by someone who has never had, overheard, or read an actual conversation between human beings. No sentence is simple; nothing ever simply is. Loading each word, and the spaces between the words, with ultimate significance makes discerning important plot turns a chore—and when obviously important things happen, such as the death of a baby, the rape of a woman, and the liberation of the concentration camps, they do not stand out from the rest of the action. Lena has such an extreme sensorial reaction to every particle of existence that it’s impossible to tell what actually has weight in her mind. Ausubel’s frequent use of parallelism and her naming of the chapter titles—each one is “The Book of” something—weakly echo the tone of the Bible, which freights the story with self-importance.

It’s a struggle to believe a word.

The details of World War II are given short shrift. It’s as if Ausubel is trying to tell the story of the Holocaust without directly referring to it, which might have worked had she not relied so heavily on our knowledge of historical events to give the story context and a sense of gravitas. Descriptions of the soldiers, when they finally arrive, are creepy and scary only because we are picturing Nazis, not because Ausubel renders them in a particularly original way. And while it’s true that a young woman from a remote village in Romania might not know much of the world, Ausubel writes Lena as so full of wonder that she comes across not as traumatized but as developmentally delayed; many of the villagers come across similarly. Why would an entire village willfully deceive themselves in a way that is unpleasant for them at every turn and doesn’t ultimately save them from anything? The lie that Ausubel tells us they told themselves is unconvincing. It wasn’t possible to suspend disbelief in order to believe that they had suspended theirs.

Riverhead Books/Penguin, 325 pages

This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo.