The only certainty in life is death.
All of us know this fact, and accept it to some degree. Yet at the same time, we strive daily to delay the inevitable as much as possible. We eat the right things. We exercise and push our bodies to the limit. We follow the latest medical trends and guidance. All in the hope of reaching a grand old age.
But how would you live your life is you knew when you would die?
If somebody told you the exact date you would breathe your final breath on this Earth?
Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists sets out to answer that very question. And it does so in stunning fashion.
This sublimely-crafted and beautifully-told tale follows the lives of four children from the Gold family – Varya, Simon, Daniel and Klara – who, in 1969, encounter a travelling psychic in New York’s Lower East Side who bestows upon their young ears this overwhelming information. The four children all learn of their fates individually, and do not share this with one another.
What follows is a tale of four very unique stories, as each Gold family member looks to live their life in spite of this ‘knowledge’, but never quite manages to escape, ignore or defy the predictions made of their lifespans.
Without going into detail and risking compromising the wonderful narrative twists and turns, Benjamin’s powerful tale spans multiple decades and aspects of American culture and history – from San Francisco’s Castro and the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, to the growth of Las Vegas as the entertainment powerhouse of the US and the changing face of travelling magicians, right through to the controversial Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
But despite the impressive scope and breadth of this novel, Benjamin never loses sight of what is most important: family. Both the families that create us and the ones we create ourselves.
It is the Gold family that ties this book together – both individually and collaboratively – and the shifting relationships of the siblings as they continue to struggle with the difficult realities of their own mortality and what is left behind.
After turning the final page, it’s impossible not to be impressed by what Benjamin has managed to accomplish in the telling of this tale. And it’s doubly impressive when we learn of the years of dedicated research that the author put into this project – clearly a labour of love – to craft a deeply-rich and informative story.
As Benjamin herself states: “there are many benefits to writing what you know: authenticity, for one, and drastically reduced research. But I’ve discovered many benefits to learning and writing about what I don’t know. I’ve been changed by each of the Golds and the research required to create them … I hope [this novel offers] a similar glimpse into new aspects of American history and personhood – and that it inspires in them the same empathy for the unfamiliar as it did in me.”
Funny, tragic and highly moving in places, I encourage readers to seek out this expertly-executed story and go on a rather remarkable literary journey; one that urges us not to take a single day for granted.