I’m sure most of you have already heard of The Immortalists. It’s been everywhere in my neck of the Twitter woods, not something that always bodes well. It’s been on my own radar for so long I can’t even remember how it got there but I suspect it was the very clever hook on which Chloe Benjamin has hung this glorious, engrossing novel which explores what it is to be human wrapped up in a piece of good old-fashioned storytelling.
It’s 1969. The tailoring business his immigrant father set up has prospered under Saul Gold while Gertie has channelled all her ambition into her children. Captivated by the idea of a fortune-teller who can forecast the date of her clients’ death, eleven-year-old Daniel Gold takes his three siblings off to see her. Klara is nine, already learning the tricks of her future trade from one of New York’s once-celebrated magicians; Varya is thirteen, self-consciously on the cusp of womanhood and Simon is just seven, still babied by his strong-minded mother. Each of the children will react differently to the sentence the fortune-teller passes on them. Simon will shrug off the responsibility of the business which it’s assumed he will take on when Saul drops dead, defying his mother and taking off to San Francisco. Klara goes with him, determined to break into the male world of magic with her daring Jaws of Death trick. Daniel will seek a safer life as a military doctor sparing young men from combat, unable to shrug off the guilt at the burden his siblings bear thanks to him. Varya becomes a scientist, researching ageing and battling the OCD which imprisons her in much the same kind of cage as the monkeys who are part of her research. The day of their sentence will be etched in all their minds, setting up barriers within the family and dictating their attitudes to life and what remains of it.
Benjamin’s novel explores themes of family, love, religion and grief within the framework of the overarching question: how would you live your life if you knew when you were going to die? Would you choose to live it to the full, or would you keep yourself as safe as you could? In other words, would you choose to live or merely to survive? Each of the four Golds’ stories unfolds separately, interwoven and overlapping on the rare occasions they meet, as they move inexorably towards their appointed date. Benjamin takes us into the four worlds they inhabit, particularly vividly evoking the joyous liberation of ‘80s San Francisco before AIDs rears its ugly head. It’s an immensely skilful piece of storytelling, peopled with well-rounded characters and Benjamin knows how to turn a striking phrase. The hook is undoubtedly that fortune-teller, a trope which has the makings of a clever thriller and there is a thread of suspense in each of the siblings’ stories but Benjamin’s novel is very much more than that, managing to be entertaining, moving and though-provoking all in one compassionate, satisfyingly immersive novel.