Book review – “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin

I am a huge admirer of authors who can come up with clever, original, twisty plots. As a writer myself, this is, I feel, not one of my strengths, so I am in awe of those for whom it clearly is. Chloe Benjamin, in this novel at least, is definitely one of those authors. The following review contains one or two spoilers.

The Immortalists imgThe novel begins in 1969 with the four children of the Gold family – Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon – visiting a fortune-teller in her grimy downtown New York apartment, who is said to be able to predict the date of a person’s death. The mystic consults each child privately about their fate. Their reactions vary; Daniel, the second oldest, for example, says he thinks it is all rubbish. The younger children seem more vulnerable and more preoccupied, particularly Simon, who at this point is only seven years old, and who is told that he will die young.

The novel jumps forward ten years when the children’s father, Saul, dies. This leaves their needy mother, Gertie, distraught. It was expected that Simon would continue the family tailoring business, but this is very far from his intention. With the fortune teller’s prediction preying on his mind, he is easily persuaded by Klara to leave New York and make a new life for himself in San Francisco, where, free of family expectations, he can lead a more fulfilling life. Simon is gay, something Klara recognises clearly, but they both know that this truth would be devastating to their traditional Jewish mother. Simon could never follow in his father’s footsteps.

Simon not only moves to the other side of the country, but he breaks away from the family completely, much to the consternation of Daniel, who sees Simon’s behaviour as wilful and selfish. It also means that someone else will have to care for their mother, a role that Daniel expected Simon would take on. We watch with trepidation the hedonistic lifestyle that Simon leads. It is the early ‘80s and there is talk of a terrible new ‘gay disease’. Simon’s behaviour has a kind of death-wish about it.

Spoiler alert!

Simon dies – but that might not really be a spoiler, because you know it had to happen! Once Simon’s death becomes inevitable, the narrative of the book becomes clear. The author teases us by inviting us to consider whether Simon’s death was an accurate prediction by the fortune-teller, or whether being given a date of death drives us towards fulfilling that prediction. To what extent is our destiny within our control, and to what extent mapped out for us? Did Simon in fact escape one kind of destiny (the one his mother determined, life as a tailor in the family business) for another (dying from a horrible incurable disease)?

Next, we are told Klara’s story. Klara is the most bohemian and perhaps the most fragile of the four Gold children. She meets and falls in love with Raj. They have a daughter and after some lean years on the road, they eventually develop a highly successful magic act with a residency in Las Vegas. They call themselves The Immortalists, after their seemingly death-defying tricks. Success is a burden for Klara, however, and this, coupled with her unresolved grief over Simon’s death, leads her into a life of alcoholism. Klara is fascinated by the life story of her grandmother, also a travelling magician, and replicating some of her tricks becomes part of the magic act. Whilst trying to emulate a particularly dangerous one, she hangs herself in a hotel room – deliberately? Was she trying to cheat the prediction?

Daniel was the most sceptical of the children. He is convinced that Klara and Simon’s deaths were caused by the fortune teller’s predictions and, with the aid of a police officer who once met Klara, he hunts down the elderly fortune-teller hoping to bring her to justice. The hunt becomes an obsession for him. I won’t reveal the rest of Daniel’s story.

Finally, there is Varya, who was told by the fortune teller she would live to 88. She is working as a senior biologist conducting experiments into longevity using monkeys. Varya, like all her siblings, has some considerable mental health difficulties. She has severe anxiety and OCD, restricting her calorific intake to prolong her life (as she does with her monkey research subjects) and shunning meaningful human relationships – has Varya become dangerously obsessed with fulfilling the fortune-teller’s prediction? Her world is turned upside down when her favourite monkey becomes gravely ill in the experiment and Varya breaks with protocol in a way that threatens the costly research project, an act which damages her professionally. She also she meets a young journalist, who claims to be interested in her work but who is not in fact who he says he is. Varya’s ordered, controlled life unravels and she must face her demons, not just for her own sake, but on behalf of her troubled siblings too.

The story has a brilliant ending with Ruby (Klara’s daughter), and Gertie, the Gold children’s mother, coming together at the end. I listened to this on audiobook and was totally hooked. It’s a long but extremely satisfying book, so many threads, brilliantly woven together. Some reviewers have said it has too many clichés, others found aspects of the plot contrived, but I absolutely loved it.

Highly recommended.

If you have read The Immortalists I would be interested to know what you thought of it.

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Hot new books for Spring

At last, January is out of the way! The mornings are getting lighter, the sun is shining as I write this and things are starting to sprout in the garden; there are definite signs of Spring. Christmas is huge for the publishing world, for obvious reasons, so the new year can seem very quiet – no-one is spending any money, and we are all curled up on the sofa watching the telly! (I’ve been working my way through all the seasons of Breaking Bad and Mad Men forever and I made some pretty good progress last month!)

By February, publishers are getting itchy, however, and it seems to me there is a rush of great books coming out this month and in the next few weeks, all aimed at grabbing our attention for Spring reading. Perhaps you are going away for February half term or will be looking forward to some days off at Easter and relaxing with a book?

Here are some of the titles that have caught my eye that I think you might enjoy.

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The Immortalists  by Chloe Benjamin

This American author’s first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams was a prize-winner so the follow-up is much-anticipated. The Immortalists follows the lives of four siblings who visit a psychic, who forecasts the exact dates of each of their deaths. The novel explores some very topical themes including what part so-called ‘fate’ and choice play in our lives. Interesting given the promise, surely, in the next few years that gene-mapping will be able to determine what diseases individuals might be at risk of getting in their old age. Great cover too!

 

Feel Free by Zadie Smith9781594206252

Personally, I’ve struggled with Zadie Smith’s work over the years and have never yet managed to finish one of her novels, but I am determined to persevere at some point as she is so widely-acclaimed. This might do the trick as it’s something a little different from her, a collection of essays, some of which have been published before on other fora. The questions posed by the essays are characteristically provocative and diverse, such as asking whether it is right that we have let Facebook and wider social media penetrate our lives so profoundly, and how we will justify to our grandchildren our failure to tackle climate change. With titles as intriguing as Joy and Find Your Beach this might just be the book that finally does it for me and Zadie!

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Described as a ‘novel of the new South’ this is a novel in a new genre that is attempting to recalibrate our assumptions about the modern American south. Set in Georgia, Celestial and Roy are newlyweds whose lives seem to be on the up, when Roy is convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to twelve years in jail. The novel explores the impact on their still young relationship of such a devastating event. Roy is finally released after five years but it is not clear they will ever be able to go back to what they were. Looks like a fascinating read.

 

9780525520221_custom-1b66fc1d3f41e6340606905dfa87fccab46e79f7-s300-c85I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

A memoir this time from a great British novelist, written as a tribute to her young daughter who suffers from eczema so severe that it impacts on every aspect of her daily life and her safety. This book is an account of a number of incidents the author has experienced in her life where she has come close to death, such as a life-threatening childhood illness and an encounter with a stranger in a remote location. She reflects on how we are never more alive than when we come close to death and so the book is ultimately life-affirming.

 

35411685How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Matt Haig’s 2015 non-fiction publication Reasons to Stay Alive was a sensation in the way it tackled the author’s experience of living with depression. How to Stop Time is Haig’s latest novel, first published last year, but now being reissued, is a science fiction love story.  Tom Hazard, an apparently normal 41 year-old, is part of a small but exclusive group of unusual people who have been alive for centuries. They are protected by the Albatross Society on one strict condition: they must never fall in love. Tom lives in London as a high school history teacher, but then a romantic relationship with a colleague means he must choose between the past and the future, or, quite literally, between eternal life and death.

 

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton34374628

And finally, a bit of historical fiction. I love a good historical novel set somewhere exotic; I find it compensates for the limited amount of travel I can do at this stage in my life! Miami-based writer Marisol Ferrera visits Cuba to fulfil the final wishes of her late grandmother Elisa, who wanted her ashes scattered in the place of her birth. Elisa escaped Cuba at the time of the revolution. Marisol returns to the land of her roots, tracing the history of her grandmother’s youth and uncovering long-hidden family secrets. I think this might be the one to read on a long journey! Tantalising.

 

What are you planning to read this Spring? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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