Elsewhere: Gabrielle Zevin

“Welcome to Elsewhere. It is warm, with a breeze, and the beaches are marvellous. It’s quiet and peaceful. You can’t get sick or any older.” This is a difficult, honest book which ends up being both difficult to swallow, but easy to digest.

I’m twenty-three, so naturally I grew up reading Harry Potter. And when I say that, I mean that I read a good healthy balance of books until Harry Potter entered my life, and then I engaged with nothing else for years and years, until I didn’t know how to read anything else anymore. I think I was mid-secondary school before I started to branch out again (and then Twilight happened, I’m so sorry). The point is, I missed out on a lot of YA fiction when I was the ‘right age’ for YA fiction. So this review is me sort of making up for it now? Elsewhere has won multiple awards, as a children’s book- here is my unashamed review/analysis.

“It is a place like Earth, yet completely different. Here Liz will age backward from the day of her death until she becomes a baby again and returns to Earth. But…now that she is dead, Liz is being forced to live a life she doesn’t want with a grandmother she has only just met. And it’s not going well.”

Elsewhere makes you think about life and death, love and loss, and its quite pushy about it. There’s no hiding behind heavy metaphors here- Zevin goes straight in from the first page and not only makes you think hard about Elsewhere, but the book makes you keep thinking about way down the line. It drew me in from the contentious first few pages and worked its way into my brain. It’s a relatively simple concept that becomes fleshed out into a grand, solid world of ideas which Zevin uses to pose ponderous questions, invoke the history of utopian novels more widely, and construct a gentle but heartbreakingly honest portrayal of humanity.

Gabrielle Zevin is a prolific author and screenwriter. She’s probably best known for her screenplay ‘Conversations with Other Women,’ which starred Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart, and was nominated for ‘Best First Screenplay’ at the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards. Elsewhere was Zevin’s first novel, published in 2005. She won a Border Original Voice award in 2006, was nominated for that year’s Quill Award, and also made the Carnegie long list.

If not for the fact that Zevin positions her story in the surreal Elsewhere, a beautiful but consciously imperfect way and place to live, it could have been a very normal YA book. There’s a moody teenager, who angsts over a self-indulgent, glamourous rock-star, and difficult relationships with family and loved ones. Instead, Zevin’s story picks out the depth of normal moments and uses the upside world of Elsewhere to recast and refract old ideas with new light. Her beautiful, lyrical prose brings a kind of surface-led clarity to old philosophical questions about love or death, and prompts the author to float through the novel, as if it were all a dream.

“And when she dreams, she dreams of a girl who was lost at sea but one day found the shore.”

Elsewhere is not just a fluffy story. It’s full of genuinely hard moments; sadness and guilt that gets wrapped up in candyfloss words. It ends up being both difficult to swallow, but easy to digest. Liz deals with losing her family very badly, at first, and some of the real depth of this novel comes from the slippery interactions she tries to have. This is a no spoiler review (as always), but rest assured that Liz’s approach ends up being bizarre, frightening and touching in equal measure. It also pushes the plot along, and really changes the tone of the novel. Liz’s attempts to maintain a connection to her family, as well as mourning for a life she never got to live, suddenly become second place to a love story that the reader probably didn’t anticipate. The love story is charming, but cannot bear the weight of the emotional issues already introduced. Liz and Owen deal with ideas about age, morality and loyalty for a very short space of time, comparatively. It runs itself out, I suppose. But you still get the sugary sadness of a Hollywood ending. It might be a bit cliché for some, but I literally wept as this book was finishing. You can probably predict where it goes, but as the book closes on notes of friendship and forever-ness, you can’t help but enjoy it.

I bought this book when it came out, but read it at university. As a historian who tended to focus on literary sources, I didn’t have a lot of time to read outside of my courses, but I picked this up on a whim and cried through most of my Saturday down-time. This is relevant, because at the time I was doing a course on the history of utopias, focusing on utopian literature, and I felt that Elsewhere could arguably be viewed as a twenty-first century answer to a lot of these older themes and ideas. The text’s dreamlike quality matches up to all kinds of other utopias which use the old dream-or-vision scenario, such as William Morris’ News from Nowhere, or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Elsewhere exists as a kind of idealised, perfect state- at the very least it is intended to be read as a vast improvement over our own world: but it can only exist when the person leaves behind Earth. The cancellation of one life and the beginning of the next is a hallmark of the utopian theme; this notion that improvement or perfection can only be attained when you fully move on from the old ways.

Of course, I can’t really talk about this book without acknowledging that it is YA fiction, and that it shows all the nuanced language and clever comedy that you might expect. In this book, Liz speaks fluent ‘canine,’ which means that many of the funniest and most touching conversations come from her chats with dogs. Their animal form at first provides a comedic contrast to the very ‘human’ issues present, but the relative importance the dogs play and their clever wit means that anthropocentrism has no place in this novel. Indeed, Liz’s relationships with canines are, importantly, no more surreal than anything else. The dogs and the rest of the supporting cast are charming and pleasant, but are left largely underexplored. They’re a warm backdrop to Liz’s story, but remain a bit dreamlike.

Overall, this is a great novel. It could be a bit much for younger audiences, but the life of a teenage girl equally won’t draw in many older readers. It has the feel of one of those books, which you feel like you’ve found it at a point when you really need it, because you always need it. There are always different ways of understanding and doing the themes of this book- it makes an ideal read for a long train journey, or a lazy Sunday. It’s an ideal gift, because the reader can take what they want from it. It stands well on its own as an inheritor of utopias and dreamscapes before it, and offers moral and emotional conundrums to a new age of audiences. I’ve already read this one again.

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