The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
I’ve been itching to read this novel due to its clever premise since I first got my hands on a copy. I’ve finally made time for it.
How long would you live your life if you knew the day you were going to die?
This is the central question, emblazoned on the front cover of the book. The Immortalists looks at how knowing that answer affects the lives of four siblings of the Gold family.
It’s 1969, a hot summer in New York. Varya who is thirteen, Daniel, Klara and Simon, the youngest at seven, visit a fortune teller, a rishika who, it is said, can tell you the date of your death. It was Daniel who heard about the woman and persuaded the others into going.
Varya put her book down and sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. “What if it’s bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown up?”
“Then it’d be better to know,” said Daniel. “So you could get everything done before.”
There was a beat of silence. Then Simon began to laugh, his bird’s body fluttering. Daniel’s face deepened in color.
“I’m serious,” he said. “I’m going. I can’t take another day in this apartment. I refuse. So who the hell is coming with me?”
They go in one at a time, exiting via the fire escape. Varya is last and is given her date, she’ll live long. But what of the others? I couldn’t possibly say, but knowing this information affects each of them differently. Which of them, if any, will try to cheat fate? Will they live a different life, knowing when they are meant to die? Benjamin follows the family from this date through the decades in sections focusing on each sibling in turn up to the time of their death.
The four certainly all take very different career paths. Daniel, who started it all off, becomes an army medic, Klara becomes a stage magician struggling to perfect her art and Simon a dancer in San Francisco. Varya is a research scientist studying ageing. Their diverse backgrounds, set against the decades they survive into, give very different feels to each section with some superb and compassionate characterisation by Benjamin. Naturally, their interaction decreases as they die, but they live on in each others’ minds. Their familial bonds, at times close, at times strained, outlast their ultimate fates to keep on affecting the surviving siblings’ lives.
We know from the section headings when each of the four will die. This adds a level of suspense as we approach their allotted date. Benjamin however, opts to play down any temptation to turn the novel into a thriller, although one of the strands is more that way inclined than the others. What she gives us is a family portrait that would bear out Tolstoy’s famous opening line from Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Gold family isn’t always unhappy, but that does make for a powerful drama. Whether you believe in fate and karma or not, this novel was a hugely satisfying read. (8.5/10)
Source: Review copy. Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists, (Tinder Press, Mar 2018), hdbk, 348 pages (now in pbk).
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