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Elsewhere by Alexis Schaitkin is a fiction feast of horror, fantasy, and mystery. After reading her previous novel, Saint X, it is clear that Schaitkin knows how to convey a strong sense of place and write about disappearances.
The story is told from the perspective of Vera, a woman who grows from childhood to womanhood within a strange, closed community set in the mountains, possibly the Alps. Everything has German-sounding names.
These people are afraid of anything or anyone from “elsewhere”, as they refer to the rest of the world. Not only people, animals too. They’re afraid of the clouds. And they live under an affliction: the mysterious disappearances of mothers. They never know when “the clouds” will take a mother, and they know how to erase her from the community’s memory once she is gone. You can feel the heavy menace of the townsfolk appearing to support mothers, yet completely judging them for every perceived misstep.
Follow Vera from before her mother disappears, till afterward when she lives alone with her father, the troubling relationship with a stranger, Ruth, and then on to her marriage and motherhood. We really feel all the deep emotions that accompany becoming a mother and loving one’s child, the temptation of allowing oneself to be absorbed by, and to lose one’s sense of self, to be replaced by a non-entity that only serves the child.
This is a hauntingly beautiful story of mothers and daughters, of all the phases of becoming, holding on, and letting go that accompany parenthood. I highly recommend that anyone who read or watched ‘The Lost Daughter’ read Elsewhere as well. (Also, as someone married to an illustrator, kudos to Celadon for what appears to be an illustrated rather than a photoshopped cover.) Publishing date is June 28, 2022, so preorder yours wherever you order books.
*I received an Advanced Reading Copy of ‘Elsewhere’ from Celadon Books in exchange for my honest review.
Saint X is one of the very few books I’ve read this year that I could not put down! The bright, tropical cover disguises the depth of the subject matter. For although it is a clever, suspenseful thriller, this novel addresses the evolution of self, the parent-child relationship in its various stages, the advantages and guilt of white, wealthy people, and the disadvantages of poor people of color on Caribbean islands and the rest of the world.
It starts like a film, zooming in to the fictional Caribbean island of Saint X. It’s the mid-1990s. The reader is introduced to a well-to-do white family from New York vacationing at a luxurious resort for their New Year holiday.
Alison, the elder daughter, is eighteen, pretty, self-absorbed, bored, and typical of girls of that age. The unusual one and the heroine is the younger daughter, Claire, or Clairey, as the rest of the family affectionately calls her. She is seven years old, has an unusual appearance, is shy, socially awkward, and appears to display possible OCD tendencies. The parents remain on the periphery of the story, and what we know of them is seen through the eyes of Claire.
The other main character in the novel is Clive Richardson, a young man who was born and lives on Saint X, and who, along with his friend, Edwin, becomes a suspect in Alison’s death. In comparison to the comfortable lives led by Alison and Claire, Clive is without the advantages that wealth can provide. He grows up without many prospects for the future, so after high school, he and Edwin find employment serving the rich white people at the resort. Which is how they meet Alison and become involved with her on the night she goes missing.
As the novel unfolds, we glimpse some of what Alison gets up to and who she interacts with in the days and nights leading to her disappearance and death. After her body is discovered, Alison and Claire’s parents are frantic to find answers, to discover who is responsible for their daughter’s death. Although Clive and Edwin did spend some time with Alison on the night she disappears, not enough evidence is found to charge them with her supposed murder, so it goes unsolved.
The novel moves forward to when Claire is in her mid-twenties and living a fairly normal life in New York City complete with a good job and friends. She calls herself by her middle name–Emily–in an attempt to put the past behind her. Except she can’t. She still longs to learn more about Alison, and more about why and how she died.
We flash back in time to the months immediately following Alison’s death when Claire’s parents are wrapped up in their own grief and she feels forgotten. Then we see her as she grows up, through all the awkwardness of adolescence and into young adulthood, and how she must deal with the way people treat her when they discover who she is. And even though she wishes she could forget, Alison haunts her wherever she goes.
So Claire is in NYC, trying to live like other people do. As a way to assuage her guilt for her affluent background, she moves into an apartment in a part of Brooklyn that is mostly inhabited by economically disadvantaged people of color. She is still socially awkward, so she doesn’t interact much with the other tenants in her apartment building, but she wishes she could.
Then, out of the blue, while taking a taxi home one day, Claire looks in the rearview mirror and is shocked to find that her driver is Clive Richardson–the man that she has always believed was involved in Alison’s death! Everything she lived through as the sister of a murder victim comes flooding back in that instant. She becomes obsessed with getting Clive to confess. She relentlessly stalks him every night after work. She finds out everything she can about him. Then she pretends to befriend him.
What comes of this obsession with and connection to Clive? Will he eventually confess to his involvement in Alison’s murder? Will Claire ever be able to heal and let go of the past? Ah, but that would be telling! That is what you’ll find out when you read Saint X for yourself.
I was very fortunate to receive an Advanced Reading Copy of Saint X from Celadon Books; however, all opinions are entirely my own. Saint X, written by Alexis Schaitkin, will be published on February 18, 2020 and I absolutely recommend this novel to lovers of mysteries, crime thrillers, and really good fiction.