Title: The Immortalists
Author: Chloe Benjamin
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Contemporary
Setting: New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas
No. of Pages: 352
Publication: Tinder Press
Publication Date: January 4th, 2018
If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?
It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.
The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.
A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.
This is a burning question on everyone’s mind, even if we don’t often nor want to speak of it: “If you knew the exact date and/or time of your death, how would you live the rest of your life?” Will knowing this make a difference in how you live?
This question is the basis of the captivating family saga in The Immortalists by author Chloe Benjamin. Kicking off the novel in the late 1960s during a particularly hot, steamy and sticky summer in Manhattan’s Lower East Side are four second-generation Jewish children: Varya Gold (13), Daniel Gold (11), Klara Gold (9), and Simon Gold (7).
Upon overhearing two boys talking about a fortune teller who could predict when people die, Daniel decides to pay the latter a visit. Curiosity got the better of him and led him to organising the event for his siblings, much to the chagrin of their older sister, Varya, who feels skeptical and suspicious of this shady character.
Klara was the first child in while Varya was the last. The experience unnerved them all but neither wanted to talk about it. Not until nine years later after the sudden death of their father Saul, do they finally share their dates with each other. It is here when author Chloe Benjamin dissects the book into four whole parts, each part for each of the sibling in the order of their predicted deaths.
Despite being the youngest of the Gold family, Simon is the first to leave after his 20th birthday. Determined to live his life to the fullest with every waking minute, he absconds with Klara to San Francisco, ultimately abandoning his widowed mother in New York. There, he wasted no time coming out of the closet and throwing himself into the sexual free-for-all, pre-Aids gay scene. Meanwhile, Klara goes ahead to pursue her lifelong fascination with magic, coming up with an act that will take her away from San Fran scene to the entertaining city of Las Vegas. Varya and Daniel, however, remain in New York to care for their mother. Daniel gets married and seeks refuge as a military doctor, while Varya devotes her life and time to academic research as a scientist working with primates. Her primary objective revolves around the prolonging of life (which may or may not be prompted by her visit to the Romani fortune teller many years ago).
There are other characters within the storyline that are just an important. They are Saul and Bertie Gold, the children’s parents; Simon’s lover, Robert; Klara’s stage partner-husband, Raj, and her daughter, Ruby; Daniel’s wife, Mira; and the Romani fortuner teller herself. Not to mention, a doggedly-persistent San Francisco cop-turned-FBI agent who pops up in and out of the narrative. His presence touches the lives of Simon, Klara and Daniel, but mostly Daniel as their conversations leave a lasting impact on Daniel’s life and fate.
It is in this tale of woe that the author shines a light on the relationship between each sibling and within the family. Each one grappling with the freedom or willingness to choose a path for themselves. As the author explained in an interview with NPR,
The novel follows each of the siblings over about 50 years as they reckon with their prophecies. Some of them fight against it. Others claim they don’t believe in it. Some use it to push them to pursue their wildest dreams. And others are surprisingly limited by it even if their date of death is quite far out.
This was truly an intriguing and mesmerising novel for me. Imagine if you knew when you were going to die, what would you do?
Simon and Klara lived out their years doing what they loved and enjoyed. It didn’t last but they did what they set out to do. Varya and Daniel didn’t and preferred to work within the safe confines of the information they knew and set about living as minimally as they could. So they wouldn’t let the fortune teller’s fate play out. Somehow, I wouldn’t want to know when I’d die or how I’d die. I rather live spontaneously, living each day as if it was my last. I find it a little creepy to find out these details, knowing that I’ve not done much in my life at all.
What about you? Would you want to know how your life will play out if someone could tell you about it? If so, how would you live your life knowing that it will end soon?