Book Review: The Immortalists

The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin, tells the story of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune teller and are told the dates of their deaths. Although dismissing the predictions as nonsense, knowledge, once planted, cannot be forgotten. Each of the children goes on to live their lives with the possibility that what has been revealed to them could come true.

The novel follows the siblings individually as their death dates approach. The youngest, Simon, is predicted to die first. Wishing to make the most of the few years he has left he runs away from home, to San Francisco, aided by his sister, Klara.  Granted the hitherto unknown freedom to act as he wishes without censure, Simon embarks on a hedonistic lifestyle. Appalled and hurt by her favourite’s unwillingness to bow to her will, his newly widowed mother disowns him as do the elder two siblings, an action they will come to regret. Guilt over the family’s inability to support choices that do not follow the Jewish family script will shape the survivors’ remaining years.

Klara dreams of being a magician but struggles to break into the profession. She survives by petty thievery, drowning her sorrows and setbacks in alcohol. Eventually she meets Raj and they form a partnership, but now her own death date looms. Unhappy and unsure of her place in life Klara tries to communicate with the dead.

Daniel is the sibling whose trajectory runs closest to that which their mother desires. He is a doctor, married and enjoying material success. As his death date approaches he finds his job security threatened. He is contacted by an FBI agent who is investigating the fortune teller. Daniel blames the woman for his family’s misfortunes. Despite their freedom of choice, each follows the path set.

The eldest sibling, Varya, was predicted to live the longest. In practice this means she must shoulder the heaviest burden of grief and guilt. She has chosen to live a life that revolves around the denial of personal pleasure in an attempt to secure her longevity. When one of her early choices returns to confront her she is forced to recognise the unnecessary limitations she has placed on herself.

Little is told of how the mother copes with the unfolding tragedies. There is reference to parental suffering and the holocaust but it is hard to envisage any mother not being devastated by the deaths of her children, even those who would not tread the paths she had anticipated and prepared them for.

The novel is an interesting exploration of the power of suggestion. The siblings each followed their dreams yet struggled to find happiness on these paths and resented the choices the others made. There was recrimination rather than support and a denial of the prophecy rather than shared discussion. Although well written and structured, with an original premise, I found the gloomy outcomes neither enjoyable nor satisfying to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.