Alexis Schaitkin, June 2022
I’ve written some free discussion questions for use in your own book groups.
High above the world in a mountain range is a town, populated by people who have lived in isolation for a long as anyone remembers. They don’t know how they got there and they don’t have any knowledge of the town’s origins; they just know that the names of streets and other landmarks are in a language they don’t speak. The unnamed town has an affliction: sometimes, even in the split-second between turning away and glancing back, a mother disappears. She no longer is, and the town closes the hole she leaves so efficiently that it’s as if she never was.
The most brilliantly written books are the hardest to review; it’s so easy to fall into a weak imitation of the cadence of the author’s perfect prose or to draw comparisons that have already been made by others. It’s challenging to write a review that doesn’t sound like a book report. So, I will share some brief personal reflections, breaking the cardinal rule of avoiding first person references, because I’ve wasted enough energy trying to figure out how to avoid “I” (which is a disappearance in itself, I suppose):
As a mother, I had the sense of disappearing when my son was an infant; I could not define myself outside of my role as a mother. I took some steps that affirmed my worth as a person. Vera, the first-person narrator of Elsewhere, did something similar, but for different reasons and with a much more drastic outcome.
As a daughter, I watched my mother disappear as she fought through ten years with Alzheimer’s disease, effectively erasing “Mom” in my memory – for now – and replacing her with Kitty who couldn’t speak but who smiled with her eyes. There is a parallel in the book (not Alzheimer’s-related), but to say more would be to venture into spoiler territory. To be clear, this is not a book about Alzheimer’s and there is not even a remote reference to any kind of dementia in the story.
My siblings and I talk ourselves out of our worries about contracting the disease by listing factors that might have predisposed her, much as the remaining mothers in Elsewhere look for (or manufacture) faults in every mother who vanishes in an effort to reassure themselves that they won’t be next.
Alexis Schaitkin’s brutal story of motherhood, affliction, forgetting, and remembering holds such universal truth that it will spark deep reactions in its readers. It won’t disappear, and it won’t easily be forgotten.
Thank you to NetGalley and Celadon Books for an ARC of this book. I used it to write my honest, if inadequate, review.