Review of Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
by Gabrielle Zevin
Is it just me, or are books about dead characters living in an afterlife increasingly common? There must be something innately fascinating about making one's protagonist already dead. Fortunately, the eponymous afterlife known as "Elsewhere" is a pleasant, non-threatening environment where dead people age backward and then are born again as babies.
If I had a choice, reincarnation would not be my first choice of afterlife. The concept hinges on the idea that everyone has, ultimately, some form of "immortal soul" that remains constant across lifetimes. Because who we are is determined by our memories, and if we're reborn without our memories, we aren't us anymore. Elsewhere ducks the question of souls and religion in general, giving us a throwaway line that "God's there in the same way He, She, or It was before to you. Nothing has changed."
Very little about Elsewhere is actually explained beyond what affects the protagonist Liz Hall. Rather than a fascinating depiction of a potential afterlife, this bare-bones description of Elsewhere does little to disguise it as the allegorical environment it really is. Not that I have a problem with allegory--it's entirely appropriate to the story. But there's nothing wrong with dressing it up once and a while either. As a place, Elsewhere doesn't seem very interesting. On Earth, it would be called Suburbia, which I suspect would make it closer to Hell than Heaven. Everyone lives in a nice house, has a nice job, and is nice to people. Yet if Elsewhere itself is an allegory for growing up and leaving behind adolescence, what does that say about life in general? This is jarringly inconsistent with adolescence, adulthood, or any other period of life. The moral of Elsewhere seems to be that a life without conflict can be rewarding, and I don't see how that can be the case.
As far as the characters and story go, Elsewhere is predictable. This may not be the case for younger readers. Liz goes through the five stages of grief, then gets on with her "life", falls in love, and experiences a few more tribulations. For the most part, I enjoyed the characterization and dialogue in Elsewhere; Zevin has a knack for quickly turning minor characters into fully fleshed-out people. Unfortunately, few of this people are interesting or remarkable. I did not like Liz's love interest, who is shallow, insecure, and spineless. My opinion of Liz vacillates between "spoiled teen" and "poor girl", but again, I'm no longer a young adult, and I suspect that a teenage girl reading this book will empathize with Liz somewhat more than I could. Nevertheless, Zevin's characters are attractive on the surface, but few have any depth.
After the predictable resolution to the predictable climax, the plot seems nicely tied up, and I was ready for the book to end. Only it continued. For some time. The denouement became a lengthy postscript showcasing the rest of Liz's life up until her rebirth; suddenly the focus of the book had shifted from Liz's attempts to acclimate to how interesting ageing backward must be.
Yet in the course of the entire story, Elsewhere never manages to answer the most pressing question in my mind: why do people even age backward? Why don't they get reborn immediately after dying? What's the point to having a secular cosmic waiting-room where everyone goes on living, in reverse, until they are born again? Why is death exactly like life, and if we get to live after death, what's the point to life anyway?
Mildly amusing, Elsewhere will entertain young adults, but doesn't have much to offer older readers. The entire concept of Elsewhere is interesting, yet its full potential is never properly explored, and I'm not convinced that Elsewhere as an allegory has much to offer to anyone, regardless of age.
Skip this and read The Five People You Meet in Heaven instead. I say this fully aware that Elsewhere isn't intended to be the same as The Five People You Meet in Heaven, yet even young adults can read and will benefit more from the latter than from this book.