Elsewhere by Alexis Schaitkin

Set in a village where mothers vanish, this atmospheric novel encourages contemplation of differences and commonalities, and thinking bigger than the boundaries into which one is born.

Alexis Schaitkin creates a chilling, mesmeric world in Elsewhere, a novel that questions motherhood, community ties and individual agency. The village at its heart and the options of a larger world will stick with readers long after the final page.

“We lived high above the rest of the world. Our town sat in the narrow aperture between mountains, the mountains forested, the forests impenetrable.” Vera has grown up in this setting, in a town with unknown origins (“Our streets and park and river carried names in a language we did not speak”) but strict rules. No one goes out after dark, when the ubiquitous clouds descend. Girls form friendships in threesomes, not pairs. And every girl lives in anticipation of becoming a mother, which carries the greatest risk and reward the village knows, because some mothers will stay and some mothers disappear. “One minute she was here, as solid and real as any of us, the next her body faded, faded, until she vanished into the clouds. Gone.”

Vera’s mother went when she was a small child, and she spends her youth wondering what kind of mother she might possibly be without a mother of her own to guide her, if it’s possible that she can be a mother at all. Her obsession echoes that of all the townspeople, who thrill at guessing which mother will be next, and what makes the difference between one who stays and one who goes. “Impossible to predict, what motherhood would bring out of a woman, what it would show her about herself, the end to which it would carry her.” Vera has always known this as blessing as much as curse. “Our affliction opened us to pain, yes, but also to heights of beauty, and of love, that people elsewhere would never know, because they did not know what it was to love in the shadow of our affliction, our love deepened and made wild by the threat that hovered over it. Our affliction was terrible, but it was not as terrible as living without it.” But when motherhood indeed comes for Vera, and she finds herself fully in the unimaginable thrall of her child, the town’s affliction haunts her in a new way.

The village is profoundly insular: “What could the stories and histories of lives elsewhere offer us?” But it turns out that “elsewhere” is a place as well. Elsewhere is unsettling, thought-provoking and lushly detailed, a memorable inquiry about attachments to place and to family, and what happens when a person has to choose between her family and herself.


This review originally ran in the April 29, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 crystal pendants.

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