“And if there’s magic in the world, there’s magic beyond it.”
Chloe Benjamin’s novel, The Immortalists begins in 1969 with the four Gold children Varya, 13, Daniel, 11, Klara, 9, Simon, 7 who head out, pressured by Daniel to have their fortunes told by a travelling psychic. Daniel has heard that the fortune-teller can predict death dates.
The practical minded Varya asks “What is it’s bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown-up?”
“Then it would better to know, ” said Daniel. “So you could get everything done before.”
But would the knowledge of the date of your death ‘help’ or hinder you? You won’t know if the date is correct or not until it arrives. I was intrigued by the premise of the novel as many years ago I had a friend who had a similar experience. He refused to tell me the date he was given, but it haunted him. After seeing how traumatized he was by this experience, I would rather not know. Of course, we all come with a hidden expiration date, and the novel asks whether or not knowing (or thinking you know) the day of your death makes a difference as to how you choose to live your life. What if the date is wrong? How does this knowledge, true or false, impact behaviour?
In a tatty apartment building, the children are each, separately, told the day of their deaths. Although they keep the information initially secret, it impacts their behavior in the years to come.
Simon Gold as a teenager who is facing joining the family’s “Tailor and Dressmaking” business, instead opts to run off to the heady freedom of San Francisco in the late 70s-early 80s. There, underage Simon finds work as a dancer in a gay bar, and he meets an older man. Meanwhile his sister Klara who runs off to San Francisco with Simon gets a job as temp. while dreaming of becoming an illusionist. Klara turns to magic in a dangerous and obsessive attempt to cross the barriers between the living and the dead.
The second brother Daniel, quiet, steady and serious becomes an army doctor post 9-11 and Varya becomes a scientist whose area of expertise/interest is longevity research. (This involves Rhesus monkeys, so reader beware). In her longevity research, quantity becomes more important than quality.
The Immortalists, beginning with Simon, follows the siblings on their life paths. Each sibling keeps the death date in his/her head, always conscious of it, even if they disbelieve it. Simon, who is told that he will die young, certainly takes this information and runs with it. Hurls himself towards it might even be a better description.
What if the woman on Hester Street is right, and the next few years are his last? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.
I liked the novel’s premise and the mystical elements, and I loved Klara and Varya’s stories, possibly because they tried to understand life in alternate ways. Daniel’s section stretched credulity, and readers should be aware that in Simon’s story, there’s a considerable amount of sex. This is described rather clinically, not salaciously, but still, anyone intending to read this should know what they are in for. IMO, it added nothing to the book. That’s not meant in a puritanical way, but these scenes did nothing for me whatsoever, and seemed, frankly, rather gratuitous.
The Immortalists asks how much we really control our lives. Would the Gold children have acted differently if they’d never met the fortune-teller? If you were told you were going to die young, would you dive right into life and to hell with the consequences or would you try to avoid disaster? Character is fate, right? Can you escape fate? We see each of the Gold children tackle those questions differently.
If you like The Immortalists, you will probably also like Daniel Kehlmann’s F (or vice versa)