Presenting motherhood as an affliction could rightly provoke outrage. But that’s one of the disarming virtues of a fantasy novel: it can confront social norms without directly appearing to do so. In her brooding second novel, “Elsewhere,” Alexis Schaitkin delves into a subgenre that could be called Domestic Dystopia, well exploited by writers like Shirley Jackson and Margaret Atwood.
Alexis Schaitkin’s ‘Elsewhere’ is an oddly current novel about motherhood
The book is set in a city “high above the rest of the world” – a “cool, humid place” with an unusual climate: “Each day at dusk the clouds would appear, gather and thicken until until they cover us with their beautiful, sinister white.
Something stranger than perpetual humidity marks this remote town, as Vera, the novel’s heroine and narrator, soon reveals. While the “climate was always mild and pleasant”, the townspeople suffer from something extreme, a “disease” that only affects mothers, usually young people. For reasons that have remained mysterious, one of them disappears from time to time, evaporating in these ubiquitous clouds.
‘Saint X’ is more than the story of a missing girl.
Much of the first half of “Elsewhere” is devoted to this phenomenon, which, like speculative fiction itself, transforms a familiar human concern into something otherworldly. In this case, the city’s affliction amplifies a common fear among young mothers of being erased by motherhood.
According to Vera, “in a typical year, we lost about three or four mothers”, including hers sometime before the story begins. One morning, a mother will be “gone.” Her family is seated outside the house, while other mothers and fathers rush inside to grab her belongings and chase away any photographs of her. A crowd gathers in the front yard to watch a bonfire of these photographs, while the woman’s belongings are carried to some sort of consignment store. As a result, her clothes and accessories endure, worn proudly by former friends and neighbors, while she is erased from collective memory. We do not know why the evaporated mothers must be forgotten; just as it is unclear how, exactly, they disappear.
What is clear is that the city’s affliction is not only accepted but cherished. A woman who does not become a mother is “safe, but she has also been deprived”. Motherhood is seen as bringing woman’s most vivid joys, despite the ever-present risk of extinction. “Our affliction was terrible,” Vera acknowledges, “but it wasn’t as bad as living without it.” This belief is tested when Vera becomes a mother herself.
Sealed by these damp clouds, Vera and her “group of new moms” wait to see who will dematerialize, obsessively watching each other for predictive “signs,” which can range from being overly attentive to their children to negligence, anything in between. Vera feels especially in danger, having lost her own mother so young, worried that what made her mother susceptible to affliction is also lurking within her. Does loving your children too much make some women more vulnerable to disappearance? Or the realization that love can’t protect your family from loss?
Aside from its affliction, the town remains uninviting, even given its Amish overtones, herds of wet goats, and Bavarian-sounding street names. The children go to school, perform in musical recitals, grow up to become dentists or shopkeepers or managers of the Alpina hotel; they get married, have children of their own. World-building often requires near-realism, depending on a few unusual objects and habits to indicate larger, more ubiquitous differences. At the beginning of “Elsewhere”, for example, Vera mentions “fruit with skin”, somewhere between a fig and a fleshy pomegranate, eaten voraciously by the young mothers, who also use its vines to weave baskets. Otherwise, the city’s most disturbing feature is its isolation.
Convinced that where they live is more beautiful, happier than elsewhere, the inhabitants do not imagine leaving, although there is a train, by which they stock up and export these baskets, and that they receive little of visitors, although they have a hotel. Outsiders still do not grasp the significance of the city’s affliction. “Their lives were ruled by simpler, thinner calculus,” Vera notes grimly. “They didn’t have our affliction so they couldn’t learn what it taught us, they didn’t own what it gave us.”
Why is ‘The Push’ so popular? Maybe because it plays into a mother’s worst fears.
Schaitkin, author of “Saint X” (2020), is sharpest and darkest when describing the anxieties and self-justifications of new mothers, their fears of being judged as unnatural or incompetent, especially by other mothers, the standard of maternal excellence to be as impossibly high in this hazy place as anywhere else.
Although, frankly, the reader also struggles to understand the lessons of affliction or why no one questions it. Even when Vera becomes an outsider herself, with a chance to step back, she doesn’t seem completely aware of the affliction’s strangeness or suspicious of its origins. (The local men, for example, seem a bit too resigned to the possibility of losing their wives.) Like those oppressive clouds, the narrative is opaque at times, and perhaps the occasional bit of humor would have provided some relief. clarifying breeze. Yet at this particular moment, a novel that dramatizes the perils of motherhood and challenges the idea that it should be paramount, could not be more relevant.
Suzanne Berne’s latest novel, “The Blue Window”, will be published in January.
Celadon Books, 240 pages. $26.99
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