Review: ‘Ailleurs’, a hard-to-categorise novel, questions the meaning of motherhood | book reviews

SOMEWHERE ELSE. By Alexis Schaitkin. Celadon books. 240 pages. $26.99.

Sometimes it’s fun to read something that doesn’t fit into any particular category. “Elsewhere”, Alexis Schaitkin’s new novel (“Saint X”, 2020), is best described as a dark fairy tale, with supernatural elements, but with something very real to say about a subject that all readers can identify themselves in one way or another — motherhood.

The mothers who read it will probably be the ones nodding the most. Schaitkin writes incisively about what it means for the mother, hardship and self-doubt balanced by beauty and love. “A mother was a chance to hate someone as much as you loved her, caring and hurtful, a push and a pull that only tightened the knot that bound you,” Schaitkin writes of her narrator’s perspective at the first person, Vera, a young woman growing up in a remote, nameless mountain town where mothers mysteriously disappear from time to time, a fact of life that everyone calls an “affliction.”

Vera’s mother disappeared when she was young and as the story progresses and Vera herself gives birth, the novel takes on an eerie quality as she wonders if she will be next. Here she is breastfeeding her child, Iris: “How come she had the potential to make me leave, or to go herself one day? For the first time, I felt the full weight of our affliction: the peril of immense loss and the power of immense love, the two forces impossible to disentangle, for they were one.

The other major theme of the book is in the title. The people of Vera’s hometown never leave except for the missing moms. They rely on a man named Mr. Phillips to arrive by train four times a year and bring them anything they cannot make or grow on their own. There is a sense of comfort and peace in their town that outweighs any curiosity they might have about what lies above the mountains. So when a stranger shows up one day, the townspeople go wild to have fun with her. “We wanted her to have nice things. It made us happy to see her see, taste, touch everything we had to offer,” Schaitkin writes. Those good vibes don’t last when the stranger bonds tightly with one of the townspeople, setting off the rest of the novel.

Summing up the following plot points just doesn’t do “Elsewhere” justice. It is a book that is best savored. It’s brief, just 223 pages, but filled with memorable lines like this that can be enjoyed by moms, dads, or anyone who’s ever loved: “You can’t keep what’s sweetest to you; you only remember it from the point of view of having lost it.

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Irene B. Bowles