By Alexis Schaitkin
I received an ARC of Elsewhere from Celadon Books in exchange for an honest review.
Like Piranesi (the best book of 2020), Elsewhere is a novel that resists reviewing: it’s nigh-perfect, borderline unclassifiable, and much of its magic depends on you not knowing where its rushing river will take you—what rapids will leave you breathless, what whirlpools will turn you around, what estuaries will abandon you in an ocean bigger than you can imagine—or what dangers, what delights, lie beneath the surface. I would encourage you to stop reading here and pick up a copy of Elsewhere, but if you still need context or convincing, well, read on….
Vera lives in a secluded small town in the mountains. Every now and then, a mother in this town will vanish into the mists, and those left behind will comb back through the detritus of their lives, searching for clues that will explain their disappearance. One day, a stranger shows up in town, and the community is eager to welcome her exotic presence. That welcome doesn’t last long. But this is much deeper and more complex than the simple story of an insular municipality turning against a non-conformist. This isn’t “The Lottery.” This is a rich and textured exploration of motherhood, like Ashley Audrain’s The Push but with softer edges, and I loved that.
Elsewhere works well because it is so dreamy and so deceptive. Schaitkin expertly funambulates between menace and mysticism; the story flirts with folk horror, then effortlessly shape-shifts into something more meditative and melancholy, then continues to palimpsest tones and moods all the way to the end. I don’t even know what genre this book is—magical realism? Maybe? Speculative fiction, or literary fiction in which odd-but-perfectly-plausible things happen? (I’d put my money on the latter, but Schaitkin’s text is pleasantly ambiguous when it comes to the supernatural. It seems to me that Elsewhere takes place in a sort of heightened reality, where the worlds bends to reflect the emotional and thematic truth experienced by its characters.)
I am not a mother, so I cannot speak to how this book will resonate with those who are. But I felt like Schaitkin effectively captured the many nuances and intricacies of parenthood, portraying its positives and negatives (and everything in between) without endorsing or condemning it. Here, it is a part of life that provides definition without defining it. Schaitkin affords Vera a great deal of grace as she continues to figure out who she is long after achieving what most people would consider to be standard life milestones, and perhaps that is why Elsewhere feels so refreshing: it quietly unmoors both its protagonist and the reader from social and cultural convention, a “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” but for matters of the heart. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Attempting to pinpoint what exactly Elsewhere is about feels reductive and disingenuous—a failure to recognize the depth and richness of what Schaitkin has accomplished here—but I will venture to say that Elsewhere is about how community dictates emotional perspective, and about how every community has literal or figurative outsiders who cannot bring themselves to belong, and how hard it is not to blame them: it’s about the way people you love can become strangers and the way strangers can become people you love, and the way the world changes around you, like a river flowing over a rock, as you find your way home to yourself, and find that home is elsewhere.
Review by Erin Larson