The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

IMG_3702There was so much buzz around this book, I honestly wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was. It was breathtaking, but quiet. I found myself becoming more and more deeply engaged as I read–it was a story that grew with the telling.

The book begins with a fascinating premise: four siblings go to a fortune teller who gives them each the date of their death. The story spins out from there, mapping the ways in the lives of these four different people are irrevocably changed by a single event. There are four sections, each told from the point of view of one of the four Gold siblings: Simon, a kid in 1980s San Francisco during the early years of AIDS; Klara, a self-made stage magician obsessed with the blurred lines between the seen and unseen worlds; Daniel, a military doctor in upstate New York; and Varya, a solitary scientist who has dedicated her life to studying aging.

Each section was captivating in itself, but as a whole, the book was simply beautiful. Benjamin subtly weaves the strands of four lives together, the story never quite linear, sometimes doubling back on itself, sometimes shooting ahead, but always with an inexorable forward momentum. I was fascinated by the knowing-the-date-of-your-death premise right away, and Benjamin executed it beautifully. She never used the construct as a substitute for storytelling.

The Immortalists is story about what it is that drives us as people, and about all the tiny ways our lives bump up against other lives, changing everything in the process. There are big questions here about fate and choice and the consequences or inherent meaninglessness of our actions–but at its heart, this is a book about how we carry grief, how we carry each other.

It struck me, after finishing the novel, how separate each of the characters felt from the others. Though the Gold siblings were deeply important to each other’s lives, those lives were largely lived apart from each other. I’m still trying to figure out how Benjamin managed to do this so well, but the effect was unique: it was a book about family, but not in the usual sense. Benjamin examines the distance between families, the ways in which absence can impact our lives as much as connection.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this passage:

“She understands, too, the loneliness of parenting, which is the loneliness of memory–to know that she connects a future unknowable to her parents with a past unknowable to her child.”

It was a lonely book to read, which made the moments of connection and closeness, when they came, all the more powerful. I was struck by how good every scene was–perfectly detailed, beautifully paced, thoughtful and authentic and present. This book is made up of many ordinary moments, captured with grace and generosity.

I also appreciated the open-endedness of the novel. There were elements of magic, but they were subtle, and shifted, depending on how you looked at them. This made the whole book feel more complicated. I was right there with each character as they struggled to understand the world, their perceptions of reality changing with experience. Ultimately, Benjamin lets the reader, like the characters, find their own answers.

Finally, the ending was pitch perfect. Sometimes a less-than-brillaint ending ruins a great book; in this case, the ending elevated it to new heights. This one’s going on my best-of-2018 list for sure.

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