“Elsewhere” by Alexis Schaitkin (Celadon Books)
Sometimes it’s fun to read something that doesn’t fit in any particular category. “Elsewhere,” the new novel from Alexis Schaitkin (“Saint X,” 2020), is best described as a dark fairy tale, with elements of the supernatural, but with something very real to say about a topic all readers can relate to in one way or another — motherhood.
Mothers who read it will probably nod their heads the most. Schaitkin writes trenchantly about what it means to mother, the hardships and self-doubt balanced with the beauty and love. “A mother was a chance to hate someone as much as you loved them, caring and wounding, a push and pull that only tightened the knot that bound you,” writes Schaitkin from the perspective of her first-person narrator, Vera, a young woman growing up in a nameless, secluded mountain town, where mothers mysteriously vanish from time to time, a fact of life that everyone calls an “affliction.”
Vera’s mother disappeared when she was young and as the story progresses and Vera herself gives birth, the novel takes on an eerie quality, as she wonders if she’ll be next. Here she is nursing her child, Iris: “How could it be that she carried the potential to make me go, or to go herself one day? For the first time, I felt the full weight of our affliction: the peril of immense loss and the power of immense love, the two forces impossible to disentangle, for they were one and the same.”
The book’s other major theme is in the title. Residents of Vera’s hometown never leave except for the moms who vanish. They rely on a man named Mr. Phillips to arrive by train four times a year and bring them anything they can’t make or grow on their own. There’s a sense of comfort and peace in their town that trumps any curiosity they may have about what lies over the mountains. So when a stranger shows up one day, the townspeople fall all over themselves to ingratiate themselves to her. “We wanted her to have beautiful things. It pleased us to watch her see, taste, touch all we had to offer,” writes Schaitkin. Those good vibes don’t last when the stranger forms close ties to one of the town’s residents, setting in motion the rest of the novel.
Summarizing the subsequent plot points simply doesn’t do “Elsewhere” justice. This is a book best savored. It’s brief, just 223 pages, but filled with memorable lines like this that can be appreciated by mothers, fathers or anyone who has ever loved: “You do not get to keep what is sweetest to you; you only get to remember it from the vantage point of having lost it.”