‘The Immortalists’

‘The Immortalists’ by Chloe Benjamin, Putnam, 2018, 346 pages, $26

How to describe the experience of reading “The Immortalists,” an extraordinary new novel from Chloe Benjamin (“The Anatomy of Dreams”)? Its plot is arresting and tender. Its characters are unpredictable and memorable. Its pleasures are myriad. It is, well, unforgettable.

“The Immortalists” poses the ultimate cosmic question: If you were to know the date of your death, how would you live your life?

That’s the question each of the Gold children addresses after an impulsive visit to a peculiar woman with the ability to tell the date they will die to all who ask her.

It is 1969 on New York City’s Lower East Side. Change is already in the air as the children of Saul and Gertie Gold wend their way through Roosevelt Park, now littered with “a few clumps of young people sleeping off the previous weekend’s protests,” to Hester Street where they hope to find the mysterious woman who will predict their futures.

Varya is 13, Daniel is 11, Klara is 9 and Simon is 7. Daniel leads the way to the meeting that will irrevocably alter each of the children. Their reactions to what they hear from the old woman will challenge what they have learned about the world, about their family and about themselves.

The novel then, in four distinct sections, follows the separate lives of the Gold children as they become adults who remain haunted by the predictions of the old woman.

Simon’s story is told first. He and Klara eventually leave home for life in the Castro district of late 1970s/early 1980s San Francisco.

Simon surprises himself as he becomes a dancer, deals with the AIDS epidemic and realizes that, though he has made little time for his own family, the old woman on Hester Street has been “like a second mother or a god, she who showed him the door and said: Go.”

Klara has always wanted to be a “girl magician.” Her worldview? “The very best magic tricks, the kind Klara wants to perform, do not subtract from reality. They add.” Too bad that her experiences in San Francisco and eventually Las Vegas of the 1980s never confirm that worldview, even as she recoils from the comfort of her own family.

During the 1990s, Daniel becomes the chief medical officer with the Military Processing Station in Albany, N.Y. Unlike his sister Klara, Daniel lives in the past. It is a safe position, one that — along with the liquor he consumes — helps stave off his anxieties — at least until the day he impulsively decides to search out the old woman “to force her to apologize for what she did to our family.”

By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, Varya, a biologist, is dedicating herself to longevity research. Fervently examining the relationship between science and immortality, Varya, whose own fears isolate her from her family — from the world — learns first-hand from a startling remnant of her past that “we can choose to live. Or we can choose to survive.”

At the core of this exquisite novel is what Chloe Benjamin terms “the siren song of family — how it pulls you despite all sense; how it forces you to discard your convictions, your righteous selfhood, in favor of profound dependence.”

And an understanding that such profound dependence is meant to be embraced with an absolute fearlessness.

Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.

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