Tag Archives: Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Living or merely surviving?

Cover imageI’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.

Books to Look Out for in March 2018

Cover imageTop of March’s list for me is Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. I have no idea where I first heard about this novel but it’s been on my radar for quite some time. Opening in New York (there’s my hook), it’s about the Gold children whose fortunes are told by a psychic in 1969. Simon heads for San Francisco and love, Klara for Las Vegas and a career as a magician, Daniel becomes an army doctor after 9/11 while Varya seeks answers in science. Karen Joy Fowler thinks it’s amazing, apparently. I’m hoping this is the kind of sprawling book you can sink into.

New York is also the setting for one thread of Lisa Halliday’s debut in which a young editor begins an affair with a celebrated, much older writer. Across the Atlantic an Iraqi-American economist on his way to Kurdistan finds himself in detention. ‘Asymmetry is a novel which illuminates the power plays and imbalances of contemporary life – between young and old, West and Middle East, fairness and injustice, talent and luck, and the personal and the political. It introduces a major new literary talent, writing about the world today with astonishing versatility, acuity and daring’ say the publishers, promisingly.

In Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil a bright young man, raised in Washington DC by his conservative Nigerian parents, keeps his sexuality secret from all but his dearest friend. When Niru’s father discovers the truth, Meredith is too caught up in her own troubles to support him. ‘As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding towards a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine’ say the publishers which sounds harrowing but the premise is an interesting one.

I’m hoping that Katy Mahood’s Entanglement will offer a little light relief after that. One day in 2007, Charlie locks eyes with Stella across a Paddington platform, and thinks he may know her.Cover image Mahood’s novel turns back the clock to the ‘70s tracing the thread that links the lives of four characters, seemingly unknown to each other. ‘In rhythmic and captivating prose, Katy Mahood effortlessly interweaves the stories of these two families who increasingly come to define one another in the most vital and astounding ways. With this soaring debut, she explores the choices and encounters that make up a lifetime, reminding us just how closely we are all connected’ say the publishers putting me in mind of David Nicholl’s One Day and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

Donal Ryan’s last novel, All We Shall Know, finally made me see what all the fuss was about. Although I’d enjoyed his previous two, they’d not met the sky-high expectations raised by their rapturous reception. I’m cautiously optimistic, then, about From a Low and Quiet Sea in which three men, all bearing the scars of experience, are looking for a home. One is a refugee, one has had his heart broken and the other is dying. ‘Each is drawn towards a powerful reckoning, one that will bring them together in the most unexpected of ways’ say the publishers.

I like the sound of Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness but what’s really persuaded me is its translation by Charlotte Collins who did such a beautiful job with both The Tobacconist and A Whole Life. Three children are sent to boarding school when their parents are killed in a car crash, each of them dealing with their shattering bereavement in different ways. ‘Years later, just as it seems that they can make amends for time wasted, the past catches up with them, and fate – or chance – will once again alter the course of a life’ say the publishers enticingly. This one sounds right up my alley.

Cover imageYou may already know James Wood’s name from his reviews in the New Yorker. In his second novel, Upstate, two sisters – one a philosopher, the other a record executive – are still coping with the emotional fallout of their parents’ bitter divorce. When Vanessa suffers a crisis, Helen and her father travel to upstate New York where over six days the family struggles with life’s big questions. ‘Why do some people find living so much harder than others? Is happiness a skill that can be learned, or a lucky accident of birth? Is reflection helpful to happiness or an obstacle to it? If, as a favourite philosopher of Vanessa’s puts it, “the only serious enterprise is living”, how should we live? Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, Upstate is a perceptive, intensely moving novel’ say the publishers of what sounds like a weighty piece of fiction.

That’s it for March’s new books. A click on a title will take you to detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks to follow shortly…