We took a break for school holidays in April, and were delighted to get back together this month with coffee, biscuits and two new members, ready to explore Elsewhere. American author, screenwriter and Harvard English Literature graduate Gabrielle Zevin’s prize-winning debut novel for teenagers made the Carnegie long list in 2005, but was new to most of us. It tells the story of fifteen year old Liz who is killed in a bicycling accident and wakes up on a cruise ship bound for the afterlife in Elsewhere – a place that seems just like the suburban American she inhabited in life, but with observation decks where she can watch her grieving family and friends through binoculars. Liz learns that everyone in Elsewhere ages backwards until they are seven days old, when they are placed in the river and return to Earth, reincarnated into a new life.
Elsewhere is an interesting idea, and it was a simply written and sometimes compelling read (“candyfloss” for some), but sadly it wasn’t a book that any of us enjoyed wholeheartedly, with so many loose ends, tangles and gaping plot holes it’s difficult to know where to begin! “I kind of liked it”, and “Unsatisfactory” were two comments that sum up how we felt. Zevin seemed to have started on a promising concept that she’d found increasingly difficult to manage until (about two thirds of the way through) she’d simply thrown in the towel and stumbled to the finish, coming down all of an untidy heap. Her editor must take some of the blame: the book was snapped up for publication – perhaps because the idea was so unusual and the teen appeal so obvious that finessing the plot and ironing out the anachronisms went by the board.
We enjoyed the Prologue voiced by Liz’s pug dog Lucy, and the interesting use of the present tense (a current vogue in children’s literature); also the symbolism of water and ships. Reflecting the author’s background, the novel does have a filmic quality, but some questioned her rather heavy-handed approach to literary references – Shelley’s Ozymandias and E B White’s Charlotte’s Web amongst them. Using binoculars to observe those still alive was reminiscent of The Truman Show (1998), while others mentioned similarities with the adult stories The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (F Scott Fitzgerald, 1922) and The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger, 2003). Another children’s book that deals unremittingly with the afterlife is The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren (1973).
"Contrived", "trite" and "lacking in any sense of consequences for one’s actions": you can tell that Elsewhere hasn’t tempted us to read anything else by Gabrielle Zevin.
Next month we are dipping into the Scandinavian genre and reading two books by the same author: one written for children and a semi-autobiographical novel for adults. Both are by the Finnish writer and artist, Tove Jansson: Moominland Midwinter (1957) – the fifth in her famous Moomins series for children – and The Summer Book (1972).