A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds, which probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next (available January 9, 2018).
I have one sibling and often wonder what life would be like if I had a couple more, which is one of the things that drew me to Chloe Benjamin’s new novel. The other was wondering how she’d pull off a story about four siblings who have their death date hovering over their heads. Could such a premise be pulled off gracefully?
The answer is yes.
The novel opens with a prologue set in 1969 when the kids learn of their death dates. It’s the middle of a hot, sticky summer on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the four bored Gold siblings are killing time when one hears about a fortune teller who can tell people the date they’re going to die. The kids—two girls and two boys—are seven, nine, 11, and 13 years old. It’s the last summer they’ll spend together as a group. By next year, their dynamics change as the two older siblings age into spending more time with their friends than their younger siblings.
After the prologue, the novel is organized into four parts, each focused on a specific sibling with some tantalizing hints about the others.
The character of Varya opens and closes the novel. She’s the eldest sibling and ends up living the longest. There is some symmetry woven throughout the story between the siblings’ ages and death dates, how the two younger and two older ones respectively stick together, and how the prophecy they’ve each been given shapes their understanding of life, the world, and their place in it. The life choices they make and the professions they choose are fascinating once you know their death dates and can see how having that information has molded their personalities. Historic events also play a factor.
This is very much a historical novel, featuring scenes from the early days of the AIDS epidemic to the Gulf War and from the rise of Las Vegas glitz and glam to genetic research on longevity.
Some of the history is presented as interesting tidbits that also reveal character. Klara, the second from youngest, is a magician, a calling she shares with a dead grandmother she never knew. This scene is an example of historical detail also showing Klara’s knowledge and her limit to being pushed around (her husband Raj is a bit overbearing):
The Mirage’s entertainment director asks Klara if she’ll let Raj saw her in half—“Easy-peasy; won’t hurt a bit”—but she refuses. He thinks she’s afraid of the trick when the truth is that she could give him an hour-long tutorial on P.T. Selbit and his misogynistic inventions: Destroying a Girl, Stretching a Lady, Crushing a Woman, all of them perfectly timed to capitalize on postwar bloodthirst and women’s suffrage.
Simon’s story—he’s the youngest—is perhaps the most heartbreaking because you know what’s coming due to the historical context. He’s a young, gay man living in San Francisco in the early 1980s. He’s had multiple sex partners, one was a flight attendant from Australia. If you’re old enough to remember or are a student of history, you know that the AIDS epidemic started ravaging the gay community of San Francisco in 1981. It was not a good time for young Simon to be there. And this is where the big questions of fate, choice, and God, among others, start weaving their way into the story.
Here’s a scene from the day Harvey Milk is murdered:
It’s late November, but the streets are warm with bodies. The crowd is so large that Simon has to take a back route to Cliff’s to buy candles. The clerk gives him twelve for the price of two, and paper cups to cut the wind. Within hours, fifty thousand people have joined them. The march to City Hall is led by the sound of a single drum, and those who weep do so quietly. Simon’s cheeks are slick. It is Harvey, but it is more than Harvey. This mass, grieving like fatherless children, make Simon think of his parents, both gone from him now. When the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sings a hymn by Mendelssohn—“Thou, Lord, Hast Been Our Refuge”—Simon hangs his head.
Who is his Lord, his refuge? Simon doesn’t think he believes in God, but then again, he’s never thought God believed in him. According to the Book of Leviticus, he’s an abomination. What kind of God would create a person of which He so disapproved? Simon can only think of two explanations: either there’s no God at all, or Simon was a mistake, a fuck-up. He’s never been sure which option scares him more.”
Simon is young and his thoughts reflect it. On the other hand is his older brother, Daniel, who goes to college, then medical school, and concludes that the problem with God is that, “He didn’t hold up to critical analysis.”
So what’s a nice literary, historical novel doing on a site like Criminal Element?
For one, there’s the issue of a fortune teller telling kids the date of their deaths—that’s some criminal behavior from the very beginning. But knowing that these characters have an impending date death makes the reader feel almost like an investigator while reading this novel. You’re constantly looking for clues as to what someone’s death date is. You wonder why they’re thinking that way, making that choice. Why did the author have them ordered x, y, and z?
There are several minor characters in the novel, and one, Eddie O’Donoghue, is a cop turned FBI agent who is woven into the story at unexpected times. As a cop, he roughs up Simon in San Francisco, and later, as an FBI agent, he’s investigating a family that runs “the most sophisticated fortune-telling fraud in U.S. history.”
In the end, however, this is not a crime novel, per se, but a novel with, shall we say, criminal elements.
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Chris Wolak is an avid reader of crime fiction, history, and classics. She writes about books at WildmooBooks.com and is the cohost of the podcast Book Cougars. You can also find her on Twitter @chriswolak.