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Prophecies and possibilities – ‘The Immortalists’

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We all want to get the most out of the lives we live. But how might your life’s path change if someone told you the day on which it would end?

That’s what happens to four children living in New York City in the late 1960s in Chloe Benjamin’s novel “The Immortalists” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $26). What follows is a steady journey across the decades, following each of these young people as their choices are impacted by the ever-closing distance between them and their predicted fates.

The Gold children live on the Lower East Side with their parents Saul and Gertie. It’s 1969; Saul owns a reasonably successful small business, but he works incredibly hard for that success. One sweltering summer day, the four young Golds decide to go on an adventure. Daniel has heard rumors of a traveling psychic, a mysterious woman whose mystical powers are whispered about with awe. After collecting their pennies and pooling their meager funds, the adolescent quartet makes their way to the purported fortune teller.

One at a time, they enter the woman’s tiny apartment. And one at a time, they are told the date on which they can expect to die.

As you might expect, the experience leaves the Gold children shaken. Instead of a bit of light-hearted fun, these kids are forced to confront the concept of their own mortality. Yet despite the shadowy nature of the prophecies – or perhaps because of it – they choose not to share their new secrets with one another. Instead, they struggle with their fates alone.

Their methods of coping vary wildly. Simon, the youngest, makes his way to the West Coast in an effort to find himself on his own terms; he seeks love and passion in the San Francisco of the early 1980s. His sister Klara makes that move with him, but her path leads her in a very different direction – her childhood love of magic blossoms. Her work with illusion moves from avocation to vocation as she builds an act that captures the spirit of what she wants to say.

The other two move down much more staid, stolid paths. Daniel studies medicine and becomes a military doctor, one whose duties include determining the fitness of potential recruits even as those requirements shift during the first decade of the 21st century. And Varya delves even deeper into her own life of the mind, devoting her considerable gifts to the study of longevity; she works as a research scientist devoted to increasing the lifespans of primates in an effort to slow and/or extend the aging process in humans.

And through it all, all four seek the human connections that – they hope – will make them happy. Meanwhile, each of them carry within them the knowledge of that singular date, a day over which a sword of Damocles perpetually dangles … and there’s no way for them to know if, when the time comes, it will actually drop.

“The Immortalists” is a decades-spanning family epic, one that follows each of the Gold children as they move through the world. They grow and change and even thrive, but never manage to escape the lengthy shadow cast by that fateful day back in 1969. It seems like a simple conceit – and it is – but there’s nothing simple about the vivid richness of the resulting narrative.

Benjamin throws up the blinds and opens wide the windows on the respective worlds of the Gold children; each of them is brought into sharp focus as the years roll by. All four get their time in the spotlight, but perhaps most compelling are the moments of overlap – some extensive, some incredibly brief – that illustrate the shifting swirl of sibling relationships. There’s an ebb and flow to the dynamic that captures the attention, a tidal force that is familiar and familial. That tug is present on every page – indicative of the author’s keen sense of storytelling and characterization.

All four of the Golds – Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya – have unique stories to tell, each of them existing as a distinct narrative while also serving as a segment of a larger whole. It’s a compelling and carefully-wrought piece of literary craftsmanship, assembled smoothly and seamlessly by Benjamin, whose prose bubbles throughout with notes of humor and heartbreak.

“The Immortalists” is a story about stories and the power that belief can hold over us. It is a story about the meaning of family and the many faces of love. It is beautifully written, sharp and tender in ways that ring loud with thought and truth. Chloe Benjamin is a dynamic and gifted literary voice, one we should look forward to hearing again and again.

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