In her new novel “The Immortalists,” Chloe Benjamin brings to life four siblings—who learn the dates of their deaths from a fortune teller—to explore what life means when it is given an expiration date. Some of the siblings die young, while others live to the ripe age of 88, but along the way it is clear that it is the content rather than the number of years that determine a life well-lived. Told through each siblings’ eyes, in the order in which they die, the earlier parts of the book are packed with action and intense emotion while the final chapters are a slow burn. Although the narrative declines in excitement, the later sections of the book allow for Benjamin’s philosophy on life to sink in.
The novel begins strangely, describing “the dark patch of fur” between a 13-year-old’s legs before discussing her “waist length and medium brown hair.” Further talk of “palm-sized” breasts and “nipples dime sized” indicate that this novel might mention uncomfortable topics. Benjamin dedicates the first section to the youngest child, Simon, who moves to San Francisco before finishing high school to escape his mother and explore his sexuality in a community where LGBT identity is widely accepted. Here, Benjamin continues her use of sexualized language, as Simon sees “a king of a cock.” However, the diction in this section seems more appropriate. What seemed unnecessary in a scene about four siblings bonding makes sense for a young man trying to understand his sexuality and place in the world. After Simon’s section, this stylized language disappears. The highly-charged sexuality seems misplaced in the general introduction, but is well suited for Simon’s section.
Though the four Gold children examined together are a case study on the value of content versus longevity of a life, each individual narrative explores topics outside of this eternal question. For instance, Simon lives in San Francisco during the early 1980s at the start of the AIDS crisis. As Simon struggles with the new, harsher stigma forced onto his sexuality, he begins to understand how his black partner feels as a minority: “Simon can conceal his sexuality. Robert can’t conceal his blackness.” Benjamin does not spend too much time on this topic—a brief argument between Robert and Simon, and a few stray thoughts of Simon’s briefly highlight the complexity of their intersectional relationship—but it is enough to make a reader pause and think. Other such issues include the role of magic in our lives, the humanity—or lack thereof—of sending healthy men to war, and how much happiness humans should sacrifice in order to live longer. In what could have become an overwhelming melting pot of hot topics, Benjamin creates a splendid blend of thought-provoking narratives.
The first section is filled to the brim with Simon’s exciting life: learning to dance, falling in love, working at a nightclub. The second, Klara’s, features magic tricks and Las Vegas lights. But the two older siblings, Varya and Daniel, live much more mundane lives and carry remorse and regret for all the things they never said to their dead siblings. Varya lives with “no room for anyone else’s pain” even though her fortune predicted a long life. As events slowly unfold, the unhappiness of lives not lived to their potential seeps through to the reader. The lull in action doesn’t induce sleepiness, which it easily could, but rather awakens the mind to deep, philosophical questions about the meaning of life.
“The Immortalists” asks questions whose answers could—and should—affect a reader's life. It is a thought-provoking novel resituates culturally and historically significant phenomena, from the AIDS epidemic to the military in a post-9/11 world. Although the first few lines set the book off to a rocky start, the incredible pacing and thought-provoking themes prove that Benjamin’s latest work is a worthwhile read.
—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew.
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