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Elsewhere

Review

Elsewhere

From Alexis Schaitkin, the critically acclaimed author of SAINT X, comes ELSEWHERE, an emotionally resonant dystopian novel centered on the dichotomies of motherhood.

Vera lives in a small town nestled between the mountains, where clouds protect citizens from the overbearing sun, keeping their laundry damp and the air thick with memories and meaning. Some of the town’s female residents must deal with the affliction, an occurrence that steals mothers in the dead of night as retribution for some failing. These failings range from loving a child too much or too little, being overprotective or underprotective, or even allowing one’s child to wear the wrong shoes on the wrong feet as the child takes his or her first steps toward independence. Though the town is unnamed, it is defined more by what it isn’t than what it is. The entire world that borders the town is known as Elsewhere --- and as all the townsfolk know, it is those who live Elsewhere, without any adherence or respect for tradition, who truly suffer.

"Perfect for readers of Margaret Atwood, Christina Dalcher and Jessamine Chan, ELSEWHERE is yet another hearty and heartfelt addition to the existing literature on motherhood, written with a satisfyingly dark and emotive dystopian edge that will open the eyes of any reader."

Vera was young when her mother disappeared, and the town completed the standard ritual. The other mothers in town raided Vera’s home, packing up all elements and reminders of her mother, and the fathers took photographs of her mother, which they then burned. This is how it is for every family struck down by the affliction; before long, it is as if the mothers never existed, for better or for worse. The tradition evokes a certain haunting dichotomy. The town is shocked and horrified that one of their own is chosen…and immediately judges her every action to determine the cause of her affliction. The women are memorialized in great, community-based ritual…and promptly forgotten.

As a young woman herself, Vera starts to watch as the “uppers” --- girls her age --- begin to pair off into friend groups and take interest in boys. But the town experiences a sudden shift when a stranger, Ruth, arrives. At first they delight in her oddness, her inability to understand the exquisite pain of their rituals, and the sacredness of their mothers. Soon, though, her interest borders on judgment; the town knows they are not safe from her or her duplicitous interest in them, so she is banished down the river. Slowly, creepingly, doubt starts to sneak into Vera’s mind. And then, as has happened to every woman before her, she is married and pregnant with child. She has opened her body, heart and life to the greatest blessing known to women --- and so, too, the greatest devastation, for she is now prone to the affliction.

As Vera ruminates on her ability to be a parent, Schaitkin probes the deepest, darkest worries of mothers everywhere (except, of course, elsewhere). She writes, “How does a mother mother? How does she know how, or does she simply not know? And if she doesn’t, can she learn it on her own?” Vera astutely notes that despite the town’s careful breakdown of the life of every woman taken by the affliction, they still do not know what traits a good mother ought to possess or the qualities that cannot be honed or harnessed.

All the while, Vera’s own love for her daughter grows roots in her heart, making her crazy, desperate and full of questions: “What did our affliction want from us? Did it want us to hold on to the women we had been before? Or did it want us to lose ourselves in this task, to hold nothing back from it?” With no right answers, she forges on, loving her daughter as only a mother can --- until she starts to sense that her affliction has come for her and she is slowly disappearing.

With the foresight of a mother, Vera chooses to face her conflict head on, removing herself from the town before the affliction can. Wearing consignment clothes and knowing nothing of the world, she leaves for Elsewhere, desperate to keep her love for her daughter alive, even if it means loving from afar. But Vera learns that the outside world is not the desecrated hellscape she has been taught to believe, and the clues about her past, present and future have been there all along. Instead of finding desperate people without traditions, she finds a purity in the innocence of Elsewhere, where mothers are not exalted, but neither are they sacrificed. Unfortunately for Vera, it is only from the vantage point of Elsewhere that she can see what she had --- and what she lost --- as a result of the affliction.

Schaitkin is a deft and clever writer, and though some of the worldbuilding could have been more fleshed out, she is at her best when presenting dichotomies to the reader. She shows us the “if, then” of every label, judgment and aspersion, and how damaging these comparisons are not only to mothers, but to entire families and communities. This is a haunting, surprisingly beautiful story, but even so, Schaitkin gets right to the ugliness of motherhood, maternal love and the animal protectiveness a mother feels for her child. The polarity is striking and unavoidable, and she is careful never to overwrite her metaphors, allowing them to land with the perfect weight and shock value.

Perfect for readers of Margaret Atwood, Christina Dalcher and Jessamine Chan, ELSEWHERE is yet another hearty and heartfelt addition to the existing literature on motherhood, written with a satisfyingly dark and emotive dystopian edge that will open the eyes of any reader.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 1, 2022

Elsewhere
by Alexis Schaitkin

  • Publication Date: June 28, 2022
  • Genres: Dystopian, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Celadon Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250219639
  • ISBN-13: 9781250219633