Saturday, December 6, 2008

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

I am behind the times somewhat. But specialising in children's literature written more than a century ago will do that to you. While marking student essays this past semester, I found that many had chosen to write about what sounded like a fascinating book, Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere (2006). The premise of a passageway to life after death being a kind of cruise ship minus the Salmonella-infused buffet proved too intriguing to pass up.

And the first two-thirds of the book did impress me for the sheer originality of the concept of an afterlife in which people age backwards until, upon their eventual reversion to babyhood, they can once again return to life on Earth. The captain of the ship that the protagonist, Liz, takes to Elsewhere, is aged only six or seven, but with the sum total of his years in life and and in Elsewhere, he's got more experience than any sea captain who ever sailed.

The essence of the plot is Liz's struggle to adjust to her premature death aged only fifteen and then to accept how little time she will have in Elsewhere as a teenager given that she is not ageing backward from her twilight years as most of its residents are. All of the wonderful potential to engage with ideas of life experience and reincarnation are lost to a degree when a romance plot slowly overtakes these ideas. While the complexities of the world of Elsewhere never entirely disappear, I was disappointed that they were subordinated to a standard romance plot.

That said, this opinion is coming from the position of an adult reader who read plenty of teen romance at the age of about eleven or twelve. I don't think I even realised that this was the category of novels I was reading (and I never sought them out in the way that Harlequin Mills and Boon readers covet their titles), but I certainly wasn't leafing through literary classics in the summer holidays. So perhaps Zevin is adequately catering to her intended readership. This almost-thirty was hoping for a resolution that suggested that on-Earth love would transcend time and death, but to say more would spoil the plot. And for Zevin to write my closure to the novel would have seen the book filed in an area of the library where "young" is not a prefix to "adult".

No comments: