Ramona Ausubel’s first novel is the magical story of a tiny Romanian village at the beginning of the Second World War. Sensing the impending catastrophe, members of this remote Jewish community huddle together. They stop the mail service, bury the radios, and create a make-believe world in which only God and they exist. “… once upon a time, tomorrow was the first day of the world. The very, very first. The earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep” (31). Echoing the voices of the Old Testament, they reinvent a world where “the past [is] no longer a place” (57). They relearn the meanings of their words, their commitments to each other, and even the shapes of their own bodies. Remembering is a choice that they do not consider. “And what of the things I remember? my mother asked. “You don’t,” the stranger said…(33)”
They decide that this new world is “about hopes more than events” (38), which [End Page 68] helps them cope with their fears. They work so hard to believe in their story that they become convinced that the old world was the make-believe one. Willpower, of course, was not enough to reinvent the world. What they needed was the power of words, the power of storytelling. “If we wanted to survive in this story, we had to tell it that way” (32). So they start a new story, with a new beginning and infinite possibilities. And this is the story that Ausubel is writing.
The little girl at the center of this story—the author’s grandmother—is enchanted by this endless new world, until she is given away to a rich uncle and aunt who force her to act like a baby. Having to reinvent herself in an already reinvented world, she struggles to remember herself. “I said that I hoped there was a little room left for myself, just a small cave somewhere between the imprinted feel of walking across wet grass and the precise tension of an apple giving way under a knife” (81). The unbearable lightness of a life without a past weighs so heavily that she has to fill page after page with lists of words of everything she knows. “Spit, babies, snot, spoon, death, dogs, saddle, horse, rain, anger, howl” (95). Telling stories and repeating words like a mantra helps her to remember who she is—at least temporarily, for a couple of years.
But one day the “forbidden world stirs” (193), news of the outside world reaches the village, and the shared dream cracks. The real begins to “mate” with the dreams (249), and the fury of the world carries away both the villagers and their stories. The little girl—by now a mother of two—survives by the power of words, repeating to her sons who she is and who they are. And when she is forced to give up her only surviving son, she tells him: “This is just a story. I will always be your mother,” … “In this chapter Natalya is your mother. Nothing is changing except what we say” (323). Of course the child sees through this double-edged consolation. He knows that “nothing is changing except what we say,” but also that what we say can change the world.
Ramona Ausubel’s novel is as unpredictable and alive as the reinvented world was on that first day. The sheer force of imagination that almost saves the village saves this ambitious novel as well. This is just a story, but it changes everything.