The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Published in Ireland and The UK by Tinder Press

If curiosity killed a mere cat, then it’s probably not too far a stretch to say it had a hand in the demises of four inquisitive children out to seek their fortune. When Daniel, the second child and first son of Saul and Gertie Gold gets wind of the presence of a travelling fortune teller in their neighbourhood in New York, he quickly rallies his siblings Varya, Klara and Simon to pool their allowances and visit her in her rented room at the next possible chance.

Each of them is invited in one by one to have their audience with the fortune teller, and she proceeds to let them know her prediction of the date of their deaths.  We are only privy to the interview of the oldest child, and last in to see the fortune teller, Varya, who is told that she’ll die at the age of 88, followed by an assurance, uttered in an urgency that rattles the child that “everything is gonna work out okay”. When Varya re-joins her siblings she’s met with upset refusals from them to offer up their received predictions, and it isn’t until their beloved father’s death a few years later that they address the day they met the fortune teller again.

Their childhood brush with their future is presented as the prologue, and each Gold sibling is given their own section documenting the rest of their lives thereafter. This approach offers up the rest of the book almost like four interconnected short stories, with characters and their driving forces in common but with each sibling in turn as the focus. We begin with Simon, the youngest and most adrift in his place in the world. Daniel has long ago asserted that he is to be a doctor, so naturally the fate of the family tailoring business is to lie in Simon’s disinterested hands. Their father’s death spurs his immortalists-grclosest sister Klara on to up sticks and move out, encouraging the 16 year old Simon to come with her, to late 1970s San Francisco, where she feels he’ll fit in like he never has before.

She’s right. Simon soon figures out and accepts his issues with his sexuality, first by becoming something of a go-go dancer in the nightclub on the ground floor of the building in which he and Klara share a flat, then by maturing to a contemporary dance troop, where he excels. At the back of his mind though is his prediction, which emboldens him to live his life to the fullest, and to take risks he may not necessarily have otherwise. It begs the question; is the knowledge, or possible knowledge he and his siblings possess a burden or a gift? Will it spur you on to seize the day with relish or to deny all responsibilities that go hand in hand with the living of life by most people? Could it in actual fact be a self-fulfilling prophesy?

These questions are called upon further when the stories of Klara, Daniel and Varya are revealed. They each have secrets that they withhold from each other, they each have peripheral characters within their stories that affect their narratives in unpredictable and unexpected ways. A grave, no-nonsense policeman in Simon’s story shows up in two more, altering the turn of events in ways that he, or they would have no way of knowing.

A confident assertion of your death day will disturb even the most self-possessed of adults, so a child’s very world will be shaken to its core and the trauma could well be enough to influence decisions for years to come. Even though Varya is given quite a good innings her everyday life is tampered by crippling obsessive compulsive tendancies. Her’s is the last story to be told, following her as she goes about her work in an animal testing facility, aiding her research into live longevity, of all things. Like her sister Klara, a prodigious magician who goes by the stage name The Immortalist but whose piece de resistance is the jaws of life, her brother Daniel the army doctor who decides who’s eligible to enlist and her younger brother Simon, who lives with wild abandon, Varya’s entire existence has been informed by that day with the fortune teller.

It’s a tale of guilt and fear, hope and misery, family politics and legacy. More than that, it’s a cautionary tale of faith, or substitution for faith, mental health and the problems caused by self-imposed isolation. It’s funny and tender as well as being an episodic family drama that, even without prophesies guiding your life’s direction, will be painfully, amusingly familiar.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 30th May 2018

3 comments

  1. I really was excited about the premise for this book, yet it didn’t seem to work for me. I was a bit disappointed in it… was it what you expected?

      • I can appreciate that… I think I was wanting it to be a bit more mysterious and magical as opposed to the darker realities of it. But it was well written. ☀️

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s