Book Review: Elsewhere


by Gabrielle Zevin

For a story that begins after the death of its 15-year-old protagonist, Elsewhere is surprisingly rich in hope. There is an utter lack of pathos, as if the author intentionally withheld the obvious sorrow of a life cut short. Instead, Liz Hall’s life continues long after the hit-and-run, and she faces many of the same challenges she would have if she were still living. Elsewhere touches a number of issues but lingers on none of them, and provides readers with a transporting backdrop to some very human questions.


Zevin’s vision of the afterlife is a charming and well-thought-out reassurance of life after death.  The newly dead are carried by the SS Nile to Elsewhere, where they are met by loved ones who had passed on before them.  In Liz’s case, her grandmother awaits her arrival at the dock, having died of cancer before Liz was born. Even before they reach home, Liz transforms into the picture of teenage rebellion, rejecting her grandmother’s loving support and doing everything in her power to return to her previous life. More than just a story about death, Elsewhere is the universal message of growing up and accepting the unavoidable.

The land of Elsewhere owes its easy believability to Zevin’s attention to detail.   Elsewhere is the flip side of life — the dead grow younger and eventually return to Earth as infants.  It’s an interesting and complication-riddled twist on the usual scene of harps and halos, but the system seems so obvious in hindsight that it demands credibility. Smaller details, such as the Observation Decks where the dead can keep up with the day-to-day lives of those they left behind, give Elsewhere an additional nudge toward authenticity.

Zevin’s prose is straightforward and only occasionally clumsy, and her use of the present tense forces the afterlife into a sense of immediacy. Liz’s voice is fairly reliable, if only in the sense that it demonstrates a teenager’s inability to focus beyond what she wants or feels at any given moment.

If there is one shortcoming in Elsewhere, it is that Liz bothers to see so little of it.  As a narrator, Liz is a less than ideal proxy for the supernatural setting, as she stoutly refuses to explore it on our behalf.  Her self-imposed alienation limits our understanding of Elsewhere as well as her standing in it.  Liz’s only friend disappears after the first few chapters, and her grandmother slowly fades to irrelevance.  By the end, the story revolves around Liz and her love interest. The angle might suit the age but not the setting, and we can’t help but feeling the tiniest bit cheated.

While Elsewhere’s basic story may seem familiar, Zevin’s creativity buoys it above the usual fare. The sheer newness of Elsewhere breathes life into its lessons of forgiveness and acceptance.  Elsewhere is charming, uncomplicated, and imaginative in a way that should prove embarrassing for readers who arrived with low expectations.


Excerpt (p. 39, paperback):

“We’re here!” Thandi is looking out the upper porthole when Liz enters the cabin.  She jumps down from the top bunk and throws her solid arms around Liz, spinning her about the cabin until both girls are out of breath.

Liz sits down and gasps for air.  “How can you be so happy when we’re…?”  Her voice trails off.

“Dead?” Thandi smiles a little. “So you finally figured it out.”

“I just got back from my funeral, but I think I sort of knew before.”

Thandi nods solemnly.  “It takes as long as it takes,” she says.  “My funeral was awful, thanks for asking.”

Rating: A-


gabrielle zevin elsewhere book review aydee

~ by AyDee on January 11, 2009.

One Response to “Book Review: Elsewhere”

  1. Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks, I’ll check it out.

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