The Immortalists: Chloe Benjamin

★★★

In the midst of a boring New York summer in 1969, the four Gold children sneak out of their apartment and head off in search of a clairvoyant who’s set up shop in their neighbourhood. They’ve heard that she can tell you the day on which you’re going to die. Egging each other on, they go one by one into the woman’s shabby rented apartment where, one by one, they’re each given a date. Out on the sidewalk once again, it no longer seems like such a laugh. The four children – pragmatic Varya; curious Daniel; fragile Klara; and little Simon – return home, each of them overshadowed by the length or brevity of their allotted futures. Surely, they tell themselves, it’s all a load of rubbish? But, as the years unfold, each of the Gold siblings will find themselves following a different path, more or less clearly determined by the clairvoyant’s eerie predictions.

This is a fantastic premise and The Immortalists was the first novel chosen for the newly-founded book group I’ve joined. What I say here isn’t just my own assessment of the book, but draws on the discussion we had at our meeting afterwards – where everyone, interestingly, had pretty much the same reaction. We all thought the idea was great, but everyone agreed that a strong beginning had slackened off into a series of progressively less gripping stories – not just less gripping for the reader, unfortunately, but also, it seemed, for the author herself.

Benjamin, and most of us readers, seemed most invested in the first story: that of Simon, the golden baby of the family, whose alarmingly early predicted death leads him to grab life with a vengeance. After years of suppressing his sexuality, he decides in his mid-teens to run away from home with his footloose sister Klara and to head to San Francisco, where he can live the dream in one of the few gay-friendly places in the States. Clutching at love affairs and adventures with both hands, he plunges into an exhilarating, promiscuous lifestyle; but the clock is ticking, and not only for Simon. For this is San Francisco in the late 1970s, and a strange new cancer has appeared that seems to be focusing its attacks on the gay community.

Next, Klara takes up the baton. Following a childhood dream to become a magician, she devotes herself to this esoteric vocation, driven by the knowledge that her grandmother was once a celebrated circus performer. Working the dark dive-bars of San Francisco, pushing herself with ever more demanding tricks, Klara gradually builds a career for herself. When she is given an unexpected chance at love, she finds that her new lifestyle, for all its glitz and glamour, only takes her further away from her professional Jewish family back in New York (not something she entirely regrets). Back home, following her progress in disbelief, Daniel has adopted the life of a military physician, grimly signing medicals for boys to be sent off to die in the Middle East. As the one who originally suggested their visit to the clairvoyant, he feels a compelling need to avenge his siblings; but how is he to track down a woman who vanished forty years before? And finally we turn to Varya, promised the longest life of all her siblings, who has developed a mania for cleanliness and sterility, and who spends her austere life working in an animal lab, seeking a way to prolong life. It is with Varya’s story – somewhat joltingly told and abruptly cut off – that the novel comes to its close.

What works? Each of the four sections, given respectively to the four siblings, has its own spirit and allows us to see the world through four very different pairs of eyes. Benjamin has evidently done a lot of research into the fields of magic, medicine and science in order to create plausible lives for her group of siblings. And the book tantalises with its great overarching question: if we know our death date, are we bound by fate, or do we find that we subconsciously make choices based on that assumption, which may drive us closer to fulfilling the prediction? Yet unfortunately there’s an equal amount that doesn’t work. As I’ve said, Benjamin seems to lose interest after Simon and Klara have told their tales, and Daniel and Varya feel shoehorned in at the end: two comparatively dull grown-ups, whose lives are injected with a tot of drama thanks to unconvincing choices and shock encounters. Neither I nor any of my fellow readers in the book club had a firm idea of Daniel or Varya, nor much interest in them: the heart of the novel clearly lay in the earlier sections. And really I only felt that Simon came close to being a fully-rounded character with whom one could truly sympathise: the three others too often felt like archetypes – the kooky free spirit; the responsible one; the recluse.

This is a difficult book to rate, because although I felt that Benjamin’s characterisation and plot weren’t always as successful as they could be, she is a very evocative writer. Her descriptions of certain scenes and places are beautifully crafted, and it may well be that some readers are less critical about it. (I found that I’d actually responded more positively than many other people in the group.) Ultimately, it feels like a collection of tangentially-related stories bound together by an intriguing overarching motif – something I’m interested to have read, but probably not a keeper. However, I think Benjamin has some great ideas and I could well be persuaded to give another book by her a try in due course. For now, I’d love to get some other opinions on this, though. If you’ve read it, please share your thoughts!

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