- Publish Date
- Thursday, 8 February 2018, 9:30AM
- By Stephanie Jones
“Perhaps nothing would have happened were it not the pit of summer, with a month and a half of boredom behind them and a month and a half ahead.” In the high heat of 1969, a mix of ennui and morbid curiosity leads the four Gold children – Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon – to a Lower East Side neighbourhood heaving with disparately rooted cultures, where everyone is a newcomer and kugel and butter chicken are local currencies.
There, the children visit a rishika, a woman who can see the future. Each child is given a private reception and a sentence, of sorts: the date on which they will die. In The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin follows this unsteady quartet from early adulthood to each sibling’s end.
Who knows how much of a family’s fate is written in the stars? The Gold siblings are the American descendants of European Jews persecuted in the pogroms of 1905. Their grandfather arrived at Ellis Island as a child and built a thriving tailoring and dressmaking business, which on the sudden death of his son Saul, the children’s father, is to be taken on by either Daniel or Simon. This is how it’s done; tradition is the nourishment of a Jewish family.
But Simon, the youngest and the shortest-living, is inspired by the seer’s prognostication to reject his appointment – Daniel is already committed to medical school – and instead enter the liberating embrace of San Francisco. At his first ecstatic sight of the city, to which he secretly flees with sister Klara, “something inside him leaps like a dog into water.” It is 1978, and an unseen plague is about to ravage the city’s young gay men. The final passage of Simon’s story is among the most devastating, unmawkishly tear-jerking writing I have come across in some time.
The departure of Simon was “the bomb that blew [the family] apart”, in the view of Daniel and Varya, the eldest sibling, who blame Klara for not telling them and their mother of Simon’s illness, but Klara leans away from her kin and into her affinity for trickery and annihilation, marrying a fellow magician and performing with him in college towns and desert casinos. As the clock winds down, she wonders about the parameters of predestination: “[W]as the woman as powerful as she seemed, or did Klara take steps that made the prophecy come true?”
The same question resounds in the stories of Daniel and Varya, the more stable siblings who nonetheless make unhappy and unsure survivors. Daniel will go badly off course in middle age, and Varya, though promised a long life, occupies a strange prison, the product of her profound fear of loss.
The lives of the Golds are variously marked by tragedy, violence and serenity, and the ties with which Benjamin binds their interconnected stories are sound. The Immortalists is not the most gripping recent novel about sibling lives (see Joël Dicker’s The Baltimore Boys), and its solemn intensity occasionally tilts towards dull industriousness, but Benjamin raises, and bravely seeks to answer, the question of how a person chooses to live when he knows precisely when he will die.
Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.
As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.
Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.
Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.
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