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Novel set mostly in New York and San Francisco – The Immortalists

14th March 2018

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, novel set mostly in New York and San Francisco.

Chloe Benjamin’s substantial second novel poses the somewhat disturbing question – How would we live if we knew the date of our death? The opening chapter of the novel, set in 1969, sees four siblings – Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya Gold – bored during the long, hot summer and seeking some excitement by visiting the shabby home of a psychic on New York’s Lower East Side. The children are seen individually and each of them are told the exact date on which they will die. The rest of the novel covers the following fifty years, as the Golds deal with the prophecies they have been given.

 

Benjamin gives us four linked life stories, one for each sibling, told from his or her point of view. Simon and Klara, the two youngest children, seem to make their choices in life influenced by the psychic’s predictions. Simon, at only 14, realises that he cannot live true to his nature if he stays at home and flees to San Francisco’s gay community, deciding to train as a dancer. He extracts every drop of joy and pleasure he can out of his short life but dies, on his predicted day, of AIDS before the disease has even been named. Klara teaches herself the art of magic and illusion and believes that she can commune with the spirits of dead relatives. She harbours the secret hope that one day she will find the magic trapdoor that will allow her to cheat her fate but, like Simon, she finally behaves as if she if forced to fulfil the prophecy.

The two older siblings, take a more traditional path through life, Daniel becoming a doctor and Varya an experimental biologist and yet their choices show the influence of the prophecy also, for Daniel is a military doctor, whose job is to decide which recruits are fit to face death and Varya is engaged in an animal experiment into longevity.

Benjamin has done a lot of careful research for this novel and she, in effect, gives us the history of four decades of American life, bringing each period to life with exquisite detail. The four central characters are wonderfully crafted and the prose throughout is a joy, rich in beautiful and subtle imagery. (Daniel) “feels the woman’s presence like a song sung in the next room or a hair-raising waft of wind, daring him to come closer.”

This is definitely a thought-provoking and certainly not always comfortable read. In some ways, the experience of reading it is a bit like an emotional rollercoaster. There are some very disturbing and unsettling scenes and then there are moments of simple, wonderful joy and, thankfully, an uplifting ending. Varya, who has lived her life as if she were one of her own experimental animals, denying herself love, companionship and pleasure of any kind, and afflicted with serious OCD finally learns to come to terms with her siblings’ deaths and discovers the healing power of family bonds.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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