It’s the summer of 1969 in New York. The weather is uncomfortably hot and sticky. Four bored children are on the lookout for something exciting to do in their school holidays. They have heard of a travelling psychic who can forecast the date of your death and decide to hunt her down.
When they locate her some of them become fearful and hesitate to proceed. But sibling solidarity wins out. Each takes their turn to see her and is told the exact date they will die.
Was this woman just playing an evil trick on them or did she really have special powers? Either way it was a cruel thing to do to children. Her predictions would haunt each child and influence how they lived for the rest of their lives.
A decade later, in 1979, the family gathers for their father’s funeral. Saul was a Jewish immigrant who had worked incredibly hard to start his own clothing business.
Simon, the youngest, had been groomed to take it over, a prospect he loathes. His older sister Klara persuades him to run away to San Francisco with her. Here he can come out as gay and she can follow her own dream of becoming a magician.
When Simon leaves, Gertie his mother nearly goes out of her mind with worry and does what she can to persuade her runaway teenager to come home. But in the end she has to concede that this is just not going to happen.
Maybe it was because it was predicted that he would die young that Simon so recklessly explores his sexuality in the Castro District of San Francisco. In the early eighties this is where the AIDS epidemic started. Known as the gay plague there was no cure for it at the time. I found this part of the book particularly heart wrenching having had a close friend who died of it.
The stories of each sibling are recorded in separate chapters .Each leads a very different kind of life. Klara follows her dreams to become a magician. She moves from San Francisco with her partner and young child to find work in glitzy Las Vegas where she performs a death defying stunt called the “The Jaws of Life.”
Daniel becomes an army doctor in post 9/11. He decides which applicants are fit to go to war. For those young men who qualify it might well be a death sentence. Varya is engaged in a research project in which primates are experimented on to find a ways to slow ageing in humans.
They reconnect occasionally for family gatherings and Thanksgiving, a time to air their differences, to express their regrets about how they might have acted differently and to share their memories.
As this is a book about a Jewish family I had expected a stereotypical dominating Jewish mother who constantly attempts to interfere in her children’s lives. But Gertie is a rather peripheral figure although she comes into her own at the very end of the book when she is already in a retirement home.
The Immortalists makes you think about the power words can have, how they can play on some-one’s mind and spread like a virus even if that person knows in their heart of hearts that reason should prevail.
Better to stay away from soothsayers! Personally I wouldn’t want some-one to tell me the day I will die. Uncertainty is preferable. Then you can keep on dreaming, make plans for the future (although they may not all come true) and hope for more time with family and friends. But maybe some would rather know so they can put their house in order or conversely throw caution aside and live the years they have left more on the wild side. It could make for an interesting discussion at book club.
Chloe Benjamin is very talented young author, still in her twenties. The Immortalists is already her second novel. Her emotionally charged family saga is not for the fainthearted. It deals with difficult issues including suicide. But there are also tender, loving moments.
It quickly drew me in and I just had to keep reading to find out what life had in store for each sibling and what effect their predicted death date would have on their lives.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is published by Hachette New Zealand. RRP $34.99
Reviews by Lyn Potter
Parent and grandparent, Avid traveller, writer & passionate home cook