Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genre: YA, Literary, Fantasy
Elizabeth Hall is dead. She died when her bicycle was hit by a cab, a senseless accident, and when she awakes, she finds herself on a boat taking her to Elsewhere--the afterlife. Elsewhere is a society similar to our own, except that here everyone ages backwards and once they become a baby, they will be sent back to earth. Most people in Elsewhere have had lived their lives, but Liz died when she was fifteen. As she copes with the sudden loss, she must grapple with creating a new “life” in Elsewhere. But is there a point to “living” when you’re already dead?
I first found out about Elsewhere when the title appeared on Goodreads list of YA books with dead protagonists. I’m writing a YA book with a dead protagonist called Company and part of the marketing process is to research similar books. However, I honestly did want to read Elsewhere, because the idea of a society of people aging backwards intrigued me, and while most books about dead protagonists featured ghosts (my own included), this one attempted to build an afterlife.
Elsewhere is a good book to read when you’re sad. The book has a languid and distant melancholy to it. This is to be expected; the book deals with death. There is grief and loss and mourning. And that, I feel, is the strongest part of the book. Liz’s grieving process is vivid and real. When she arrives at Elsewhere, she is not eager to explore this new land; rather, she sinks into a depression and gets stuck mourning the life she lost.
However, I feel like Liz never fully comes out of that depression. Even as she acclimatizes to her new “life” in Elsewhere, there is a lingering sadness that permeates the novel. In some ways, this has to do with the style of writing. The prose is simple, matter-of-fact, and not terribly descriptive. Anything that might elicit emotion is glossed over. As a result, the sadness is never too sad, but the happiness is not all that happy, either. In fact, everything is such an even keel of lukewarm, I started to feel like I was reading about a person coping with a low-key but persistent case of clinical depression.
Part of the trouble, for me, was Elsewhere itself. Now, I write fantasy, so I’m picky with world-building, and here there were some noticeable holes. You’d think that building the Afterlife would require the author to grapple with spiritual or metaphysical issues, but these are barely addressed. The question of God is brought up briefly and shoved into a corner. There is no Judgment, but neither are their saints or murderers. There are laws, but no consequences for breaking them; jobs, but they don’t seem to matter; money, but no real sense of an economy. For that matter, whether people have bodies or not is rather murky. Everyone speaks English, and there doesn’t seem to be any subcultures.
Basically, Elsewhere is middle-class America with a few retro references and some magical elements tossed in. Now, as a fantasy writer, I find it a little disappointing to have the whole afterlife to play with and make it so mundane. You’d expect the Afterlife to be, if not perfect, then at least different. You wouldn’t think that there would be snappish bureaucrats or gift shops filled with the same kitschy junk found everywhere.
But this all plays into the theme of the book. Life--and death--is what it is. It will never be perfect; it will always be temporary; it will never really change; and the best you can hope for is to find little moments of happiness along the way. I personally read Elsewhere as a way of coping with the crushing disappointment of existence. Dreams are shattered, and then you move on.
The characters are likable and relatable. I liked Liz. I related to Liz. But the more I read, the more it struck me how passive she was. It seemed like everything just happened to her. Friendship happened, family happened, a job happened, and eventually love happened. The romance annoyed me at first, because it seemed so easy and simple, and I was jealous. But then, as I watched the love story play out, it seemed sort of… passionless. Like everything else in the novel.
It made me wonder (and here I get philosophical) is it choice that makes us passionate? To say, “I want, I choose, I will.” Is that the stuff passion is made of? The few times Liz seemed to make any choices about where to direct her life, it was impulsive, disastrous, and quickly aborted. Eventually, she stopped struggling and let life happened. But was this a journey of acceptance… or settling? And this goes back to the world-building of Elsewhere and fantasy writing in general. You can create your own reality and it need not be perfect--but shouldn’t you try to make it better?
These are just my personal reactions. I had no trouble reading Elsewhere; in fact, once Liz arrived, I found it went rather quickly. It was not strongly plotted, but there were enough things happening to keep my attention right until the end. Although emotions were dampened, I still felt moved. It was a good novel, and for certain people--perhaps, those dealing with grief or depression--it may even be poignant. I, however, prefer a little more hope and passion in my fantasy novels.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.