The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you'll die. In the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2018
Publisher: Tinder Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781472244987

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There's been a lot of advance buzz about this novel, mostly drifting over from America. In fact, it has the kind of marketing juggernaut behind it that you'd expect for a six-figure debut, though this is actually Chloe Benjamin's second novel; her first, The Anatomy of Dreams (2014), won the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was longlisted for the Flaherty–Dunnan First Novel Prize. In any case, I'm happy to report that this lives up to the hype: it's a well-crafted family novel that appeals to both head and heart and is perfect for readers of Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Anne Enright.

Summer 1969: four Jewish siblings – Varya, 13; Daniel, 11; Klara, 9; and Simon, 7 – escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller on Hester Street who they've heard can tell you the day you'll die. The siblings go in one at a time, but the narrative sticks with Varya, so initially we only know her date of death. She'll live to a ripe old age, the fortune teller predicts, but it seems the others aren't as lucky: Klara, for one, comes out in tears. After a brief prologue, the novel is in four long sections, almost like novellas: one per sibling. We follow one sibling up to the moment of his/her death, then pick up with another.

It's a difficult plot to discuss in any detail, as there would be spoilers inherent in any character's day or manner of death. But there is still plenty to talk about in the paths the four siblings follow and the different ways they respond to the advance knowledge of their (perhaps untimely) deaths. I can imagine how much fun Benjamin had researching and writing this novel: she's able to explore four distinct worlds. Daniel, a military doctor, examines Iraq War recruits; Klara becomes a magician in Las Vegas; Varya researches ageing via primate studies; and Simon is a dancer in San Francisco. The settings, time periods, and career paths are so diverse that you feel you get four novels' worth of interesting background.

The siblings also differ in the extreme in terms of how they deal with the fortune teller's revelations. In this fictional world, the dates of death seem inevitable, but before that deadline one can choose to chase afterlife experiences, to give in, or to seek revenge. One can rail at fate or decide that life is of one's own making. 'Nobody picks their life. I sure didn't,' their mother, Gertie, says; 'Here's what happens: you make choices, and then they make choices.' Daniel gives a contrasting opinion, though: 'The truth is that most people enjoy a certain level of impotence. But I think we do have control—so much that it scares us to death.'

I'll confess to being ever so slightly disappointed with how Benjamin brings everything together in the end, but the book as a whole is a clever and thought-provoking look at quantity versus quality of life and how family and romantic love, despite their complications, can make a life worth living. This is one to look out for in early 2018.

Further reading suggestions: There are any number of great novels out there about family interactions, but we can recommend The Green Road by Anne Enright and The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein.

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Buy The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin at


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