Another Life Altogether
Elaine Beale crafts the engrossing coming-of-age and coming out story of Jesse Bennet in Another Life Altogether. Jesse lives on the northeast coast of England, one of the world’s fastest eroding coastlines. The constant threat of the breakdown of the cliffs is mirrored by Jesse’s mother’s constant threat of mental collapse. The book begins with her mother in Delapole, the local mental hospital, though Jesse tells her classmates that her mother is on a cruise; her hope is to impress a girl she has a crush on in her class. But when her mother is discharged, in an attempt to escape judgment and get a fresh start, her father moves them into a dilapidated house in a small village.
Jesse is desperate to begin her own new life at the new school somewhere higher in the pecking order. She gets her wish as she develops a friendship with Tracey, a girl with a mean streak and an older sister, Amanda, that Jesse falls for. With her unrequited love for Amanda, and a mother who spends most of her days and nights in bed, Jesse spends much of her time writing letters to Amanda that she never sends. The letters allow her an escape and provide an outlet for her feelings in a world where she feels no one understands her or cares about her.
The layers of life develop throughout the book as Jesse battles to reconcile what she thinks her life should be and what it actually is. She wrestles alone trying to understand her sexuality and steals a book from the local mobile library on homosexuality that still doesn’t help her reconcile her feelings towards Amanda to the fact that nearly everyone around her judges homosexuality as perverse and wrong. Her father ignores the stress and trauma of the family life, preferring to yell at the television, hoping that his wife will snap out of it, and assuming Jesse can carry on by herself. Jesse’s mother struggles with what seems to be bipolar disorder; manic at times and nearly catatonic at others, she is trapped by her own brain.
The idea that mental illness is something that can be shaken off like a blanket permeates the book; the mother wants to be better but can’t. Another theme throughout is the almost impossible cruelty that kids can inflict upon each other; regardless of the time period (the book is set in the 1970s), those who are different are relentlessly picked on.
At the book’s climax, I kept desperately hoping that Jesse would do the right thing. (Don't worry. I won’t spoil it for you!) And at the end of the book, while Jesse has changed and grown throughout, we see that her life still has to carry on. There is no happily-ever-after, but there is a waking up: an acknowledgment that appearances and popularity often mean nothing and that ignoring things won’t make them go away.
Another Life Altogether is an extraordinary true-to-life book, and Beale tells a number of important and poignant stories all at once with great skill.