Elsewhere from Alexis Schaitkin is a melancholy, unsettling book. The setting is an imaginary town, high in the mountains. It’s so near the mountaintop that the clouds settle in there during the evenings. And some mornings, the townspeople wake up to a terrible event. One at a time, some of the town’s mothers disappear. It’s called “the affliction” and everyone accepts it as normal, including the book’s narrator, Vera.
Vera begins her story with the disappearance of her own mother, told as her teenage self recalls the event. Then Vera meets her future husband, marries, and has her own only daughter. We learn about another important event in the town—the arrival of a strange woman from “elsewhere.” And as Vera narrates everything from her dinner stews to her young daughter’s birthday party, we begin to know her intimately.
But as Vera navigates life, Schaitkin also creates a variety of plot twists. Vera vacillates between simple satisfaction with life and fear of being taken. Her overwhelming mothering instinct and attachment to her daughter become almost palpable. Nevertheless, the elemental question remains—what is motherhood and how are mothers and their children connected?
Elsewhere feels as elusive as those mountaintop clouds. It’s just slightly inside the fog, which means readers never fully understand the town or its inhabitants. In fact, townspeople even tell the stranger that she’ll, “ … never know what it’s like here.” And for me as a reader, Schaitkin left many unanswered questions, just as if I was that strange visitor.
Told entirely in the first-person voice of Vera, we hear only one perspective of the town. She reveals what she chooses, regardless of the opportunities to explain more. But this also makes Elsewhere an intense character study of a woman searching for her own truths. Vera is clearly a child of the enclave, but Schaitkin follows her for many decades. So despite the single viewpoint, we see Vera’s personality grow and change as she ages.
This is Schaitkin’s second book and the differences between Elsewhere and Saint X intrigued me. While Saint X is a mystery partly set in on a tropical island, Elsewhere has a much cooler and higher altitude location. And the introspective writing reflects this. On the other hand, one part of Saint X is set in New York City and has a similar sense of elsewhere as this newer book. On the whole, though, the author shifts genres very effectively.
I recommend Elsewhere if you appreciate thought-provoking speculative fiction focused on the roles of women and mothers.
Many thanks to Celadon Books and the author for an advance reading copy of the book in exchange for this honest review. Elsewhere debuts on June 28, 2022.