Rating: 4 stars
The Immortalists is Chloe Benjamin’s second novel. I read a review of it that made me want to read it immediately. Unfortunately, most of the other members of my local library service did too, so I had a bit of a wait. It was worth it, though.
From the off, Chloe Benjamin’s choice of words evokes sights and sounds poetically.
Her tiny nose is no-one’s, or so she thinks. By twenty, it will have risen to assume its full, hawkish majesty: her mother’s nose. But not yet.
In one hand, he carries a drawstring bag made of chinoiserie fabric. Inside, dollar bills rustle and coins shimmy their tin music.
‘No. I won’t do it,’ says Gertie, who must be walked through each step of the funeral as if through the customs process of a country she never meant to visit.
Benjamin also uses skilful scene setting in the prologue, establishing the personalities of each character, introducing the concept of having a finite time to live with a known end date, only presenting the fortune teller who deals out the fate of each child through her interaction with Varya, the eldest.
The first focus is on Simon, the youngest, the one who is expected to stay, the one who most needs to escape. A story of sexual awakening in the Castro district of San Francisco, a time and a place, Harvey Milk, homophobia mixed with racism, the beauty of falling in love, the thrill of sexual encounters. A story of finding out what matters, who matters, what and who you are, how you might choose to live, the impact that has on the people around you.
Klara’s chapters made me think of Geek Love. Fearless Klara, in tune with the thin partition that exists between realities. Klara who takes inspiration from her namesake, her grandmother, another fearless Klara. Klara who drinks to drown out her own thoughts, who drinks to fill the emptiness, who drinks because her talent is too much and not enough. Klara who refuses to be sawn in half because all of the magic tricks that seek to destroy or to vanish the female assistant are toxic with misogyny. I loved Klara.
Daniel is a study in rationality. But Daniel also craves absolution from his part in taking his siblings to see the fortune teller, which suggests that he’s not entirely rational. He inhabits the place that many raised by religious parents occupy. Daniel wants to accept the comfort that religion brings to people but his rational mind won’t let him. His apostasy results from a combination of witnessing how little the obedience to God in his parents’ religious lives gains them and the effect of unpreventable tragedy that feels like it should be preventable if a loving god that cares for its creations really exists. For Daniel, God is an invention that allows humanity to abdicate an amount of responsibility for how their choices impact on the world around them.
Varya is closed off from the world. She is a shadow on the edges of her siblings’ lives, a faint presence through the body of the book, despite being the character who opens and closes the story. Her research into how to prolong life in organic organisms is Benjamin’s means to an end. It ties together the ideas introduced by the other characters’ stories.
The book explores themes of whether we are in control of our own lives or whether external forces rule our fates. Do we choose to live full lives that end quickly, or can living the life of an ascetic put death on hold? Is there a middle ground? Does it matter? Of the Gold children, it seems that only Simon had a fulfilled existence, not without pain, but certainly without an eye toward worrying about consequence. But is the message of Simon’s life a morally sound one? Is it necessary for someone who chooses to live their life to their personal definition of ‘the full’ to die a punishing death? And the message of Klara’s life? Is it true that there are ways to control your own death or that death is not the end of us? Does Daniel’s death bring him the absolution he seeks? Is he the scapegoat accepting his fate in place of some greater punishment, or is he simply a man undone by grief? And Varya’s research? If science can prolong a person’s life but only in a way that wrings all the joy from it, is that worthwhile? Because it’s not just the person’s well-being that is affected, it’s that of the people around them who have to witness the reduction of living to mere existence.
Personally, I don’t want to live a long life if I can’t enjoy it. To answer the question on the front of the book, “If you knew the day you were going to die, how would you choose to live?”, I would choose to live well. I would be kinder to myself and the people around me. I would put less pressure on myself and my relationships. I would spend more time in the moment, less time thinking about what might be coming next. These are things that I have learnt are important for me to have a better life than the one I was living while my mum was ill and in the year following her death. I have a feeling that they are things that are important for everyone, but maybe some of us need to go through trauma in order to understand their importance.
By its end, this book suggests something similar. It had me in tears twice: once in a scene that confirmed for me the wrongs of vivisection; once in Varya’s realisation of everything she had missed out on in her attempts to control her life.