Review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin - "As long as you can transform, my friends, you cannot die."

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Released: 11th January 2018
Published by: Headline Publishing
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Bought
Pages: 352
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
It's 1969, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York's Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die.

The four Gold children, too young for what they're about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes. Over the years that follow, the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies the fortune-teller gave them that day. Will they accept, ignore, cheat or defy them? Golden-boy Simon escapes to San Francisco, searching for love; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician; eldest son Daniel tries to control fate as an army doctor after 9/11; and bookish Varya looks to science for the answers she craves.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists is a story about how we live, how we die, and what we do with the time we have.
This review also appears in Vertigo 2018: On Thin Ice

If you found out when you would take your last breath, how would you spend the moments you have left? The Immortalists confronts the reality of our mortality in the form of a sweeping family saga. Featuring four siblings over forty years, Chloe Benjamin’s poignant work follows the Gold’s as they navigate the rest of their lives after a visit to a fortune teller reveals the day each of them would die. The result of this singular event is a story which branches into the relationship between faith and fate, transformation of familial ties and whether profound knowledge acts as a blessing or a curse.

The novel’s structure brings particular attention to the Gold children at different periods in their lives, examining the subtle yet irrevocable shift in consciousness that comes with supposedly knowing when their time would be up. Would the predictions morph into a self-fulfilling prophecy, or is it possible to rebel against a fate written in the stars?

Where this book makes its biggest impact is through Benjamin’s prose that captures her characters’ deepest insecurities with remarkable clarity. Simon in particular struggles to find his place in the world. A young idealist, he begins his new life in San Francisco to break free from the constraints of his widowed mother Gertie.

Is this not what he wanted? His mother has relinquished him, given him to the world of which he’s longed to be a part. And yet he feels a spike of fear: the filter has been taken off the lens, the safety net ripped from beneath his feet, and he is dizzy with dreadful independence.

Alongside Simon, Klara also wishes to subvert her fate. As a magician with her signature ‘Jaws of Life’ act, she embraces a lifestyle which is equally exhilarating and precarious. It is interesting to note how the author has juxtaposed these two with Daniel and Varya whose paths are arguably more conservative. However, while Daniel works as a military doctor deciding which men are fit for the perils of war, Varya’s occupation as a scientist brings her to the brink of discovering the secret of longevity. Even as their lives diverge so drastically, Benjamin tenderly brings to light the invisible thread of kinship holding families together through their darkest hours.

She could not bear that kind of life: dangerous, fleshy, full of love so painful it took her breath away.

The complex characterisation probes the reader to wonder ‘if I knew when I would die, how would I choose to live?’. In The Immortalists it seems that people either adopt an affinity for facile hedonism, or measure each waking minute according to the minutiae of every decision to be made and where it will lead. The former is pure recklessness, the latter a recipe for a tedious existence devoid of joyous spontaneity. Perhaps it is only as we live with cautious awareness of our return to dust that we can appreciate all aspects of the human experience; from the crushing weight of loss to the soaring weightlessness of pure happiness.


If there’s anything to be learnt from The Immortalists, it’s that the future will always be uncertain, with cracks formed long ago from the mistakes of years gone by. Nonetheless, there is comfort to be found in the surety that as long as our hearts keep beating, nothing compares to the sensation of feeling well and truly alive.