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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Book review: “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K Le Guin

Science fiction has never really been my thing but, ever keen to push my reading boundaries, I included it as a theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge in October. It’s a genre I know little about, so picking an author or title might have been tricky, but I had in fact known for some time who I would select, having become aware of Le Guin after she died in January last year at the age of 88. The obituaries talked about how she had for years been under-rated, the inference being that as a woman she was overlooked in this male-dominated genre, but that she had a devoted critical following and has been cited as an influence by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks.

She was prolific, producing nineteen novels, as well as short story collections, poetry and non-fiction during a writing career that spanned six decades. (I note that her first full-length novel was published when she was 37, which gives me some hope!) Many of her novels form part of her Earthsea series, so I chose The Lathe of Heaven as it is a stand-alone novel.

the lathe of heaven imgThe Lathe of Heaven was written in 1971, but was set in ‘the future’ – Portland Oregon in 2002. This future world is one in which the global population is out of control, climate change has wrought irreparable damage and war in the Middle East threatens geopolitical stability. The most alarming (and engaging) thing about the book, for me, was how prophetic it was; in 1971 did readers think this was some dystopian world? Worryingly, many of the problems envisaged by Le Guin are recognisable features of our environment in 2019.

The main character is George Orr who has an unusual affliction – he is able to change reality through his dreams. It is a difficult concept to get hold of, but when he dreams a new situation, all history is also altered to facilitate the revised present and no-one but he is able to recall how it was before. For example, in 1998, a nuclear war virtually destroyed life on earth, but George ‘dreamed it back’ and in the new iteration the nuclear war never happened.

George is disturbed by these dreams and turns to prescription drug abuse to stop himself from entering deep sleep when these ‘effective dreams’ happen. He has to break the law to get sufficient supplies, however, and when he is caught he is forced to see a psychiatrist, Dr William Haber, to help him wean off the drugs. When George explains his problems to Haber, the ambitious but under-achieving doctor quickly sees the potential for using hypnosis to ‘suggest’ dreams to George which will organise the world the way Haber wants it. Haber’s intentions are not entirely malign; he wants world peace and widespread good health, for example, though he is careful also to ensure he benefits financially and in terms of academic status as a side-consequence. The problem is, Haber’s suggestions are not always interpreted by George’s brain in the way Haber intended. So, when Haber suggests a dream for the elimination of racism, the result is not, as Haber thought, that people become universally open-minded and accepting, rather everyone’s skin colour changes to grey, ie there is no longer any visible indicator of race.

Events become ever more bizarre and George, desperate and realising that Haber is using him for his own ends, which George is worried will have devastating consequences, ultimately, turns to a lawyer to try and get out of the therapy and stop Haber. The lawyer, Heather, becomes George’s ally and partner and he ultimately falls in love with her. But as realities keep changing, she is at times, farther and farther away from him.

It is a fascinating story and I enjoyed the philosophical journey, the question of the extent to which we are in control of our destiny, as well as the very relevant themes of global warming and the locus of power in society. I won’t give away any spoilers, but the ending lost me a little – at that point it felt more ‘of its time’, though I can also see where Le Guin was coming from. Don’t forget this was published not long after the moon landing so the concept of outer space, whether there was anyone else out there, were, I imagine seen somewhat differently than they are today.

Recommended, if you’d like to try something a little different.

If you are a fan of science fiction, what other authors would you recommend?

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Kids book review: “A Whisper of Horses” by Zillah Bethel

If you have children aged 10-12 years, I can heartily recommend this book. It’s marvellous; dark in parts (but don’t kids love that?!), but ultimately full of hope and showing that you can achieve the near-impossible if you dare to believe.

a whisper of horses imgThe novel is set in Lahn Dan, you’ll recognise the pun, but the place described in the book will be unfamiliar; it is practically a separate city-state within England, encircled by the ‘Emm Twenty-Five Wall’ that none of the inhabitants dare cross (told that there is only a deserted wilderness on the other side anyway). This is a time after ‘the Gases’ (a reference to climate change), the ‘Tems’  has deteriorated to a muddy flat and only the rich are able to live in the ‘crystal towers’  that afford them some natural light and allow them to live above the pollution layer. In a nod to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is a strict hierarchy in the society: at the bottom are the Pbs, who do most of the work, then slightly higher up are the Cus, the professional classes, but true power lies only with the Aus. Give the child a prize who spots that these are chemical symbols and what this says about the social order! Lahn Dan is run by ‘the Minister’ a distant and slightly mythical figure, not unlike Big Brother, whose orders are carried out by Mordecai and his Secret Police. It all has echoes of 1984.

The main character is Serendipity Goudge a 12 year-old girl who lives alone with her mother. They are Pbs and do agricultural work. They live in a ‘pod’ and have very few possessions, though Serendipity cherishes a small wooden horse her mother once gave her; she is fascinated by the creatures but they are said to be extinct and nobody has ever seen one in the flesh. Serendipity’s mother dies, leaving her nothing of any value except a locket. Hidden inside the locket is a small map indicating a route out of Lahn Dan, through the Emm Twenty-Five Wall to ‘Whales’ via the ‘HH Bridge’  to a place where there might be horses. Strictly speaking, Serendipity, as an orphan, should be taken into care, but Professor Nimbus, her ‘storyteller’ (the children get a very limited education), takes her under his wing as his apprentice. It quickly becomes apparent that this situation is not sustainable and that Serendipity’s life is in danger. She decides that she will try to escape Lahn Dan, initially with the help of the Professor, who confesses that he, along with a small group of others, is a secret agitator for change.

By chance, they meet up with Tab, and his funny little dog Mouse. Tab is part of a band of Smugglers with a camp on the other side of the Wall. Tab is like something out of Oliver Twist, a street-wise orphan who helps Serendipity escape the city. They reach his community’s encampment, but it becomes clear that Tab may also be in danger and so he decides to accompany Serendipity on her search for horses in Whales.

The rest of the book is about their quest to fulfil a dream, but, though they don’t realise it at the time, they are also looking for a better life, outside the corrupt, polluted, decrepit city of Lahn Dan. En route they come across things they have never seen before – green fields, rain, a train, fresh food. It is a story about love and friendship – initially, Serendipity and Tab do not trust each other, but they soon come to realise that their fates are entwined and that they are better as a team. The people they meet along the way  help and encourage them on their journey. The novel also has great suspense; once the authorities realise that there has been an escape, they pursue Serendipity, and nearly catch her several times.

Spoiler alert!

Serendipity reaches her goal in the most magical and unexpected way, not immediately, but many years after she has settled happily in Whales, in a brief and beautiful moment that made me cry! 

This is a fabulous book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading – kids and adults alike will enjoy spotting all the references, the links to current concerns in its themes (the importance of community, climate change, the social and economic separation of London from other regions of the country). The pace is perfect for the 9-12 age group, the characters are well-rounded, credible and fun, and I loved all the nods to other books – this would be a great introduction to titles they might come across later in life.

Highly recommended.

[My copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the author after I posted a review of her other novel The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare which I also enjoyed and recommend.]

What sort of books do your kids like reading?

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