The Immortalists is the second novel by American author Chloe Benjamin, and has already been described as “2018’s first must-read” by Entertainment Weekly, a statement that I would definitely agree with. It’s a truly captivating and compulsive read, posing complex questions about life and death, and how we deal with the knowledge of our own mortality.
The book begins in New York in the summer of 1969. The four children of the Gold family, ranging from thirteen-year-old Varya to seven-year-old Simon, have heard stories about a mysterious woman in the neighbourhood, a fortune-teller who has the ability to predict the date of your death. Gathering up all the money they have between them, they decide to visit her, and hear her predictions. Only Varya’s date is revealed, a long way into the future – the other siblings keep theirs secret.
The novel is then divided up into four sections, following the lives of each sibling, and how knowing (or believing that they know) when they will die shapes the course of their lives and the choices that they make, whether because of or despite this information. The Golds are impacted in various ways by tragedy, misfortune, regrets, and mental illness throughout their lives, yet the encounter with the fortune-teller has a powerful influence on them all, whether or not they choose to believe the predictions. Both the premise and the structure of the novel are so original and striking, and Benjamin creates such a believable figure in the fortune-teller, that I raced through the book dying to know if the predictions actually came true or not.
Simon and Klara, the two youngest children, run away to San Francisco, Simon to become a dancer and Klara to pursue her lifelong dream of a career as a magician. Personally, I found the stories of these two characters the most emotionally involving, as in this first half of the novel, Benjamin includes a lot of rich detail about the Gold’s family history, and the strong bond between these two siblings in their intertwining lives. Family relationships are really at the heart of this story, which explores the enduring strength of these primal ties, which, despite estrangements and misunderstandings between the siblings, can never quite be broken. Magic also plays a central role in the novel through Klara’s act as the titular Immortalist. Her fascination with and genuine belief in magic blur the boundaries between mystery and reality even further, making the reader unsure what to believe.
On the other hand, Daniel, who becomes a military doctor, and Varya, who dedicates her life to genetic research and developing ways to prolong life, have slightly less satisfying stories, although they are still well-developed. The ending to Daniel’s story, while dramatic, felt quite frustrating and disappointing. It would also have been nice to have heard more from the perspective of the Gold siblings’ mother, Gertie, as she is the force which connects the siblings together, but she remains very much a secondary character and we rarely hear her voice.
The setting of America over the last quarter-century is vividly depicted, as key moments of modern American history are brought to life, from the Castro district of San Francisco during the early years of the AIDS crisis, to the choices faced by military personnel in the context of the Iraq war. Various American identities are explored, from Romani communities to Jewish identities and the experience of immigrants, both legal and illegal. The role played by Judaism is particularly interesting, especially the more intellectual side of the faith; while none of the siblings feel themselves to be devoutly Jewish, it is nonetheless something which impacts them all.
The Immortalists is a poignant and spellbinding read, and one that stays with you for a long time. It leaves you questioning how far we can control our fate, and how we should measure the value of life – is it better to live for a long time, or to live intensely, as if you could die tomorrow? And of course asking yourself, would I want to know how long that life will be?
The Immortalists will be hitting book shelves on Tuesday, 9th January 2018.
– by Nicole Gadras