Earlier this summer my mother and I took a trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We were there for a week. Despite getting annihilated by UV rays on day two and waddling around in constant pain from head-to-toe for the rest of the week, it was a good vacation, a relaxing and much-needed escape from the stress of everyday pandemic-induced stagnation. While sitting along the beach, toes buried in the hot sand and basking underneath a clear blue sky that smelled of sea salt, I opened the book I brought with me on the trip and began to read. I had bought the book months ago during my annual Barnes & Noble purge, and I figured, I’ll have a week’s worth of time to kill during vay-cacy, so why not dive into it? I’m glad I did. I’m really glad I did.
If you couldn’t guess by the title, the book in question is The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in January 2018, the novel takes a simple premise, blends it with a dose of magical realism, and explores the inner workings of the Gold siblings- Varya, Simon, Klara and Daniel. Their story begins in New York City, 1969. The young Golds, finding themselves bored one summer afternoon, visit a mystic who’s recently arrived in the lower east side of the city. The mystic woman tells them their futures, including when they will die. It’s this night with the old woman that each sibling carries throughout their lives, affecting them in ways they couldn’t have imagined.
The story is told in five parts- the first being a prologue of sorts, introducing the Golds as children; each of the remaining four being devoted to one of the siblings’ perspectives as they grow into adulthood and lurch closer to their predetermined fates. This choice of structure leaves a lot of room for detailed character exploration, an opportunity Chloe Benjamin takes full advantage of. The characters are so three-dimensional and so well-defined that they practically leap off the pages. I felt like I knew them. I wanted to know more about them, and as the story progressed, and their lives spiraled into turmoil, I found myself needing to know how their journeys would end. Even characters whose personalities I didn’t love- namely Daniel Gold, the skeptic and down-to-earth realist of the bunch- still managed to pull me into their storyline. Klara Gold’s section is by far my favorite. I love her eccentricities, and how the themes of dreams vs. realities tie in so beautifully into her mental, emotional and physical conflicts. Each of the main characters’ stories is heart-wrenching in its own unique way. Out of the four, Klara’s storyline resonated with me the most.
Something that stood out to me the moment I began reading is the style in which Benjamin tells this story. I can’t recall the last time I’ve ever read a story told in the present tense. The more I think about it, this is probably the first full narrative I’ve encountered that is told in this way. It’s a unique choice on Benjamin’s part, and a clever one at that. Although the novel takes place over a number of decades, the pacing feels viscerally in-the-moment. It’s as if you’re a ghost who’s been sent to bear witness to these characters’ lives. Time, it seems, is merely fluid. Utilizing the omni-present tense blends well with the theme of uncertainty. Despite knowing when they will die, the characters don’t know precisely how their stories will end, leaving their ghostly witnesses- us, the readers- with an intense hunger to find the truth.
The Immortalists is one of the books that, once you pick it up, you might have a hard time putting it down. Benjamin’s beautiful prose blends rich dramatic elements with the pace of a soft thriller to create a story both engaging and emotionally riveting. It’s a fantastic tale about love, grief, regret, and, above all else, uncertainty. Through her characters Chloe Benjamin poses an alluring, albeit haunting, question- do our choices in life inform how and when we die, or would knowing how or when we die inform the ways in which we choose to live? The answer, not surprisingly, is uncertain.
Cosmic Grade- A