Book Chatter: Elsewhere

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Classes officially started yesterday.

It was a big wake-up call. Every June, I say to myself, “Sonya, this is it. This is the summer you learn to juggle.”

And then I blink twice and it’s September and I have to switch my attention to papers and group work. It’s like the anti-juggling corporate interests are conspiring against me, I just know it.

This year I defeated them. With the help of one YouTube video, three plums, and twenty minutes, I can now drop small objects in a more coordinated fashion.

Speaking as a juggler, I think this is actually a more faithful representation of levitation than juggling.

Speaking as a new juggler, I think this is actually a more faithful representation of levitation than of juggling.

Besides not juggling, another delightful feature of my summer was reading. I do plenty of that during the school year, but it’s mainly things with titles like Mad Libs where the audience is given the phrase “Implementing [Noun] in the Practice of [Noun] and [Noun] with [Adjective] [Plural noun]”, and they always pick words like “underprivileged” and “initiative”, instead of letting their hair down with choices like “lagniappe” or “depilated” or “cotton candy”. It’s meaty stuff to read — I know I’m getting my money’s worth. But on occasion, it does make me wish for literature with a bit less nomenclature and a few more gnomes.

Even if the gnome mostly complains about his joints and grumbles about the newfangled young gnomes with their weatherproof caps. That's fine.

I’d even read a story where the gnomes spent most of their time grumbling about newfangled young gnomes who always had to have the latest clogs.

So this summer, I read only what I wanted to. I revisited some old favourites and found some new favourites. Some books I started but couldn’t continue, and I think that’s OK. Giving a book a fair shot is important, but so is knowing when to put one book aside and give attention to another. Because what we’re all looking for in a book, I think, is the kind of story that will stick with you and pop into your brain at strange moments to give you a little more insight into your situation.

Like if a defrauded stranger offers you a really, really good deal, maybe you should take a day to consider it.

Like if a defrauded, bitter stranger offers you a really good deal, maybe you should take a day to consider his motives.

Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere is just such a book. At first glance, it might seem like just another YA exploration of mortality, as it follows Liz, a 15-year-old bike accident fatality, to the world beyond death: the amiable land of Elsewhere, where white-pajama’d people arrive via cruise ship and gradually age backwards until they are shipped back to Earth as infants. Between their arrival and departure, the people of Elsewhere can do whatever they like. Some, like Picasso, continue their Earth careers. Others, like Marilyn Monroe, take up a completely different vocation (in her case, psychiatry). And some, like Liz, are completely unready for life after death and will do anything to stay connected to their old lives on Earth.

When I searched for "communicate", this came up. Sometimes I have serious questions for Pixabay.

When I searched for “communicate”, this came up. Sometimes I have serious questions for Pixabay.

Zevin’s storytelling in Elsewhere is richly nuanced, a narrative that turns readers’ assumptions on their heads. We’re used to stories of protagonists battling the inevitable, but usually that inevitability is death; in Elsewhere, it’s life. Many stories are populated by people’s struggles to stay young, but one of Liz’s most poignant struggles lies in accepting that she will never get older. Stories about death almost always focus on the grief and recovery of those left alive; in Elsewhere, it’s the victims’ grief that matters most. In short, Elsewhere is the kind of jarringly inverted story that throws everything into question, tearing down readers’ assumptions of normality and then carefully and beautifully rebuilding them.

You wouldn’t think that a world without the usual risks of injury and death would still house legitimate tensions, but Zevin never lets us doubt for a second that Elsewhere’s special risks are just as serious as Earth’s. Within this surreal world, Zevin is free to freshly explore the themes of purpose, commitment, lives lived well, and what we would do if we had nothing to lose — and she does so with great aplomb.

What’s your favourite book or story about a fictional afterlife? 

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Photo credits: Book cover from Better World Books; girl from Hans, gnome from PublicDomainPictures, Pied Piper from WikiImages, swimmers from Hermann, on Pixabay.

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