Simon McDonald reviews Chloe Benjamin's 'The Immortalists'.
New York, 1969. The Gold children – Varya, thirteen; Daniel, eleven; Klara, nine; and Simon, seven – visit a psychic in a grimy tenement building on the Lower East Side. Rumour has it she can predict the future; actually proclaim the date you will die. Which is both a terrifying and alluring prospect for the siblings; ultimately one too tempting to ignore. So they divvy up their allowance and make the trip. Find their way to the psychic’s door. Knock. One by one, the Gold children enter the psychic’s den. One by one, they learn their fate. And then live with this knowledge, festering in the back of their minds, a countdown to their own personal doomsday.
Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists asks readers to consider how they would live with a clock ticking inside their head, counting down to a hypothetical irreversible endpoint. Would you live life to the fullest? Intentionally partake in hazardous activities, placated by the assurance your time hasn’t yet come? Or would you live a sheltered life? Protect yourself, cocoon yourself, saddled with this unwanted burden. Perhaps you’d reject the prophecy entirely; just live your life the way you want to, balanced between carefree and considered, as most of us do. The Gold children are fine projections of possible responses to such a scenario, with very different mindsets and responses to their fates.
The Immortalists is split into four sections, each focusing on a different sibling, but various secondary characters weave through these episodes, some in a more contrived fashion than others, in an attempt to accentuate the drama. Despite a couple of instances of events tying together a little too coincidentally, Benjamin’s novel is never anything short of compelling, and these minor flaws are completely overrun by the richness of its characters. The subtleties of their differing stances as they wrestle with the magnitude of knowing the date of their death is exceptional. Ultimately, while the ‘ticking clock’ element of the tale adds narrative impetus, readers’ emotional investment is garnered from their hope that the Gold’s fractured relationships can be healed before it’s too late.
The Immortalists is the kind of brilliant novel that swallows you whole, forces you to live in its world even when you’re not turning its pages. A meditation on predestination and guilt, this family saga might’ve landed in bookstores in January, but it’s one readers will be thinking about until the end of the year. I expect to see it on several ‘best of’ lists.