Imagine waking up dead. I’ve always had a soft spot for the ludicrous nature of that question, but it’s worth pondering. If you went from this exact moment and suddenly found yourself dead, how would you react?
MercyMe treated the question of the afterlife in their hit song “I Can Only Imagine,” but Gabrielle Zevin takes a different approach in Elsewhere, a young adult (YA) novel published in 2005. It’s been on my Round Tuit book list for ages, but this seemed like the proper time to engage it. I’ve read books and seen movies about conceptions of the afterlife before (The Lovely Bones novel and What Dreams May Come film), but I have never read one quite as whimsical, fresh, and enchanting as Elsewhere.
Fifteen-(almost sixteen-)year-old Liz Hall wakes up on a cruise ship called the S.S. Nile. She slowly realizes that she is conscious and alert, but definitely dead: struck by a taxi driver in a hit-and-run at the mall. She is on her way across the water to Elsewhere, Zevin’s version of the afterlife, where everyone simulates life as they slowly age backwards.
Wondering about life after death is nothing new. If you’re a member of Dumbledore’s Army, death is but the next great adventure. If you’re like most Americans, you fear death more than anything except public speaking. If you’re Catholic, you believe in the Church’s guarantee of life after death in some fashion, and in the resurrection of the body. It may seem surprising, but Zevin’s novel can be reconciled with that teaching.
Liz pauses. “Um, Aldous [her intake counselor], can I ask you one more question?
“You want to know where God is in all of this, am I right?” Aldous asks.
Liz is genuinely surprised. Aldous had read her mind. “How did you know I was going to ask that?”
“Let’s just say I’ve been doing this awhile.” Aldous takes off his tortoiseshell glasses and cleans them on his pants. “God’s there in the same way He, She, or It was before to you. Nothing has changed.”
How could Aldous say that? Liz wonders. For her, everything is changed.
“I think you’ll find,” Aldous continues, “that dying is just another part of living, Elizabeth. In time, you may even come to see your death as a birth. Just think of it as Elizabeth Hall: The Sequel.”
In Elsewhere, the afterlife is unpleasantly devoid of a personal, omnipresent God. That’s not the way I would want to experience God in Elsewhere, but since Liz was not religious during her Earth life, neither is she in Elsewhere. Apparently, I would be able to experience God as a (finally!) visible companion, teacher, father, and friend. Zevin leaves this point ambiguous. It seems that those who are secure enough in their faith not to be shaken by the fictional experiences of an equally fictional teenager can still be content with the afterlife this novel presents.
Accompanying Liz as she struggles to grow up (despite the reality that she’s getting biologically younger every day) has its own share of excitement, surprises beginning on the very first page, and a voice that genuinely captures today’s teens. Liz is neither despondent nor entirely self-centered nor Pollyanna. She is as real as dead girls come. If you’ve ever wondered what the next life might be like, take a look around Elsewhere.