Elsewhere by Alexis Schaitkin

Sometimes I read a novel and I think, gosh, this would’ve made a great short story. I had that reaction here, although I’m not sure it would work. I felt, reading this, like the author had an idea she wanted to explore, and she was creating a story in which to do that, rather than being driven by characters, and that rarely works for me. There’s a folk tale vibe going on, which can sometimes work with non-specific time passing in big chunks, but I felt the time wasn’t well controlled, nor the level of specificity. The semi-alternate world wasn’t fully realized. I just couldn’t quite tell what I was reading.

For instance: there are certain rules here. Much more of a collective consciousness. Women all have their hair in a braid, with a silver hair pin in it that they use to draw blood from men’s shoulders during sex. But… where does that land? The town seems to have an economy, but not really? There are stores, and there is money, but do people get paid? They get supplies delivered by a single person who brings deliveries from “elsewhere,” but do they pay him? A few times, it’s mentioned that these people all weave baskets that then get sold, but so occasionally that it feels tacked on, like she decided to add it and found three or four places to mention it but it wasn’t really part of the world as imagined. They have photography, and a dentist, and they seem to to have electricity, but no telephones or cars or computers? It’s not that you couldn’t have an alternate world, but this one seems to be unsure whether it’s trying to explain itself or not.

And then there’s the central conceit — some mothers just disappear or, in the language of the book, they “go.” And then the left-behind husband and children, and the town, have a ritual about it. Sure, there’s commentary going on here, but it feels like it’s not fully formed as a literalization of whatever she’s getting at. It feels like it’s an early phase of the idea of a story where something like that happens.

Granted, I struggle with books where the central theme is motherhood, because that’s just not my thing. But you can write a book about that that still works as a book even if you’re not all in on the topic (Rachel Yoder did, and Claire Vaye Watkins did). This one just seemed like it wasn’t sure of itself. Alas.

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