It’s a premise that in the wrong hands could come across as gimmicky, so it’s a testament to Chloe Benjamin’s skill as a writer that The Immortalists is such a captivating, moving read. The story of four Jewish siblings who while away a summer’s day with a visit to a Lower East Side psychic, the novel presents the implications of being told as a child the exact date on which you are going to die.
“The summer of 1969 — it seems something is happening to everything but them,” writes Benjamin of the sweltering day the Gold children attempt to meddle in forces beyond their control. Around them, Woodstock and Stonewall are changing history; for the Golds, it is the last summer before adolescence necessitates that they cease being a unit.
After the first sibling’s story is told — that of Simon, only seven when the novel opens, a lost soul who finds a home in San Francisco’s flourishing gay community just as Aids begins to rear its ugly head — Benjamin makes clear that the Gold quartet will probably not be able to escape their fates.
Death will come; the question is how and why and, more pertinently, how it will shape their lives before then.
The book is neatly segmented; from Simon we go on to Klara, a troubled travelling magician who convinces herself she can outwit her fate; and then the more steadfast army doctor Daniel, and medical researcher Varya, both of whom find their Judaism to be a source of both solace and uncertainty.
The four stories are only loosely connected, yet each one is shaped by knowledge gained before the protagonists were old enough to handle it.
Each individual tale is beautifully and sensitively told, the characters and the worlds they inhabit as well crafted as they are distinct from each other. Spanning several decades, the period detail is illustrative but not suffocating, and the irrationality of the premise does little to dent your enjoyment.
Benjamin, whose first book, The Anatomy of Dreams was critically acclaimed when it came out in 2014, brings to life the particular Jewishness of the Golds’ upbringing; their tailor father’s immigrant mentality; their “hulking mass” of a mother’s complicated love for her offspring.
The book is perfectly paced such that each section races along; I found myself rushing to each character’s last moments only to regret that I had not savoured their earlier existences.
Jennifer Lipman is a freelance writer