A beautiful and very Jewish novel about life and death.
With an ecstatic quote from Karen Joy Fowler and an intriguing premise strategically located on the front cover, I’m quite looking forward to The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.
This is a beautiful bit of scene setting. It serves as an explanation as to why four siblings would search out a fortune teller who knows the date when people will die:
Wow, that’s one stonker of a Prologue. The four kids go to the fortune teller to learn of their death date. Benjamin though does the smart thing of narrowing the focus on one of the children, the eldest Varya who is 13 and is growing increasingly frightened as her younger siblings go one by one by to meet with the fortune teller. It’s genuinely unnerving, only reinforced by an outburst from Simon (the youngest) during dinner where he declares hatred for his family. The question is whether the rest of the novel can match such a stunning opening.
The first part of the novel is told from Simon’s perspective and is ominously set between 1978 to 1981. That sense of foreboding is underscored by the death of Simon’s father Saul who keels over suddenly in the street one morning. The siblings get together for the funeral and, of course, they mention that day. It’s left a mark on all of them. Benjamin’s prose is lovely and engaging; her character work is also on point. There’s something matter of fact and innocent in the way she reveals Simon’s sexuality:
Simon’s first experience of the nightlife of San Francisco is so joyous and wonderful. Which makes me morbidly wonder when and where the hatchet will fall:
This particular moment is set in late 1978 (Harvey Milk has just been assassinated). This is not the first time that Benjamin has raised the issue of race in the gay community a reminder of the various power dynamics within marginalised groups:
Once Simon’s sexuality became clear I’d be lying if I didn’t immediately think AIDs as his likely killer at such a young age (if we’re to believe the fortune teller). It hasn’t happened yet, it’s December 1981 and Simon is still alive, but I can’t pretend that I don’t see the inevitable in the distance:
Let’s be clear; I am loving this novel. It’s already reduced me to tears once and I’m only a third of the way through.
The second section of the book, set over a nine-year period between 1982 and 1991, is from the perspective of Klara. She’s a magician performing her act in smoky bars and nightclubs in front of small audiences. Her dream though is to figure out then duplicate histories greatest tricks.
Even though the Gold siblings are not particularly religious, I appreciate that the Judaism depicted in the novel is authentic. So often when it comes to Judaism (and religion in general but I only notice it with my faith), creative types offer a Hollywood-gloss something that is recognisable as Judaism but is a string of stereotypes or outright bullshit. Benjamin though is true and genuine to the faith. It’s another reason to love this book:
I know I keep harping on it, but I love the Jewish-ness of this novel. I’ve now reached Daniel’s section; it opens with him meeting his future wife, Mira. They discuss faith and Nazi-stolen art. While Daniel is not religious, something he has in common with his siblings, there’s no doubt that his sense of self is Jewish. It’s not just a gloss, a character detail, it’s embedded in who he is. It’s rare to read a novel where the author treats Jewish identity with so much care and attention.
Putting aside the fact that this scene – David showing his niece photos of her mother Klara – has me in tears, the story about Saul and the pickles could be about my father, always on the lookout for that perfect balance of crunch and vinegary goodness:
I might be pulling at straws here, but I wonder if Karen Joy Fowler was asked to blurb the novel because the fourth section of the book – Varya’s story – involves experimentation on animals, in particular, marmosets.
The Gist Of It
I don’t know who wrote The Kirkus review for Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists back in July last year, but he or she wasn’t keen on the central conceit and described the plot as contrived. Based on my live-commentary I clearly disagree, I thought the novel was terrific. That said I could appreciate the reviewer’s critique. For one, Benjamin is deliberately ambiguous about the fortune-teller’s supernatural powers. Yes, each sibling, well three of them anyway, die on their appointed death-date, but they don’t keel over from a heart attack or get hit by a bus, events that would strongly hint at the supernatural, in fact, they have an active hand in their demise. And, yes, the maneuvering of Simon, Klara and Daniel in a place or state of mind where their death-date becomes an inevitability rather than a sudden act of God is, at times, strained – in particular, the events that led to Daniel’s death. But for all the hand-waviness and creaky plotting, I can’t agree with the Kirkus’ reviewers final statement that the novel failed to cast its spell because in my case I was most definitely hypnotised, mesmerised and bewitched by this story of the Gold family. It’s partly because I’m partial to novels that cover decades rather than days, it’s partly because this is such a Jewish-novel (something ignored by the Kirkus reviewer) and as a consequence the book resonated and it’s partly because while Benjamin does put the siblings through the wringer – AIDS, depression, OCD, angst and guilt – she clearly loves these people, loves this family and that love, not mawkish or sentimental but genuine and tangible, pulls you through the narrative, compells you to keep reading even if it’s clear from the very structure of the novel – broken into four sections for the four siblings – that each of them will die once their part is concluded.
This is a novel about fate and destiny and death but for all the tragedy the Gold’s experience, for all the lives truncated, cut short, this is still a life-affirming novel. The message isn’t that you should make every day count, or that knowing when you will die allows you to focus on the essential things, Benjamin is never that trite, no the message is that life is messy and complicated and that ultimately we try and do the best we can in the short time we have even if that means distancing ourselves from our family or becoming obsessed with an impossible dream of curing death.
The Immortalists does weave a spell, one that had me in tears by the end.