Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book review: No One Is Here Except All of Us

I've raved about my library system before, and this post is going to do it again. While I usually go to a particular library to pick up or drop off most of my books, I can't really go there if I don't have either a plan or a hold already there. That location is very steeped in horror, LDS fiction, and romances, three genres of books that rarely go home with me. If I need a book and don't have a plan, I will go to a different branch that always seems much farther away, but it really isn't. I can usually browse the stacks and come up with something that is good.

I had once such visit to the library a few weeks ago. And while I usually consult the computer for suggestions or go on Amazon to find reviews, I did none of that. I just wandered through the shelves and pulled books out at random. I can still remember the spine of No One is Here Except All of Us as it sat on the shelf: it was aching for me to read it.

No One is a World War II novel. A very small and isolated village reads the latest newspaper one night in 1939 during the Sabbath service. The inevitability of war is starting to seep into their consciousness and it terrifies them. Suddenly, an airplane flies over their village and drops what may have been a bomb (it is never clear what it was) very near the village. Right afterwards, the river that circles their land floods (which seems like an alarming amount of catastrophic events to happen in an evening!) When the floodwaters recede, they find fish and a piano and all sorts of flotsam and jetsam, mostly importantly a woman who was had very recently lost her entire family to Nazi soldiers, and was only saved from death herself by the sudden flood. The village panics, and decide that they aren't going to go along with the narrative that the world, but are going to isolate themselves and start over. They will have no history, no link to the outside world, no before, only a future.

At the heart of the story is Lena, a young girl with parents and a brother and a sister. It was her and the stranger's idea to begin again, and so she is often called on to help to create the parameters of the new world. They decide that most people will stay with their families, but a few swap wives or husbands. Watching the village have the first days in the new world parallels Genesis: God separating the day from the night, the firmament from the waters.

(if you are prone to reading this book and don't want to be spoiled, you can stop here.)

Lena's journey is not an easy one. Again and again she finds herself starting over. She finds herself traded away to her uncle and his wife. Later, after a bizarre few months of life with her new parents/uncle and aunt, she is married. Life is good to Lena and her husband Igor and they have two young boys when the war finally finds the village, and Igor is captured by soldiers and taken away. Lena and her children leave the village to try and find Igor, but she never finds him in her travels, but manages to lose both her children - one to death, another to a farmer and his wife who offer to trade their travel papers for her eldest son. It's brutal and sad and heartbreaking watching Lena lose everything over and over.

My favorite thing about the book was the writing. It was slow and beautiful. It's very unspecific about the passage of time and the details of life. But the relationships - Lena with her first family, Lena with her uncle and aunt, Lena and the stranger, Lena and Igor, Lena and her oldest son Solomon: oh, they are beautiful. And sad. And real. I also loved the lists. They are always sending one another lists, and the lists are the love letters, which seems like a very strange thing before this book but now seems very beautiful. A list of very specific words that mean specific things in a relationship can say more than a paragraph or even an essay, if the right person writes them and the correct person reads them.

Here is one example: "Perl - this is how I love you - as she hold the worn piece of paper in her trembling hands - dog, pillow, mask, cabbage, kiss shovel. Perl imagined each item as a creature at her feet, an army her daughter had summoned to look after her. I almost remember who you are, the note read. 'I almost remember who I am too,' Perl said..." Just reading it again makes me want to sob!

This is such a different type of war novel. While I as the reader knew the atrocities that were going on, the villagers had no idea. Lena has only a vague idea of the war as she encounters people on her journey. She doesn't know that millions of Jews just like her are dead, or are finding themselves in the same position as her: alone in the world, no home to return to because everyone is dead, no plan or safety to flee to. So in this way, it's just like every other war novel. Because it really does not matter at all if you know the details - the number who were killed or how the Americans and Russians and Brits defeated the Nazis and the Fascists or where the concentration camps were or how Hitler killed himself. The only thing that matters is that real people who loved and lived and worked and had lives were subjected to war, which always makes everyone lose.