Death accompanies siblings through life

Rob Kidd reviews The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. Published by Tinder Press/Hachette

If you were told the date of your death would it change the way you lived?

For four Jewish siblings living in New York in 1969, this becomes their plight and the driving force behind the narrative of Chloe Benjamin's second novel.

The kids hear of an old gypsy woman living nearby who can tell them their future and one by one they receive their expiry date.

The Gold family is headed by neurotic matriarch Gertie and her workaholic-tailor husband Saul.

But the story is essentially split into quarters; each centred around one of their children.

Simon, the sensitive creative type, runs away with his sister Klara to San Francisco where he is free to immerse himself in a flamboyantly homosexual lifestyle without reproach from his parents or the wider Jewish community.

The prophecy lingering over him makes him more impulsive and carefree, which ultimately leads to his downfall.

Klara, whose ambition is to become a respected magician and performer like her grandmother, is similarly guided by the prediction of an untimely death.

Although, unlike her younger brother, she performs under the moniker ''The Immortalist'' and appears to believe she can cheat death.

She is the most perceptive and compelling character and really the only person who spends significant time explicitly questioning her fate.

''Was the woman as powerful as she seemed, or did Klara take steps that made the prophecy come true? Which would be worse? If Simon's death was preventable, a fraud, then Klara is at fault - and perhaps she's a fraud too,'' Benjamin writes.

''If she doubts the woman, then she has to doubt herself. And if she doubts herself, she must doubt everything she believes ...''

The sensible siblings - Daniel and Varya - attempt to bury thoughts about the soothsayer.

However, the career paths they choose make it abundantly clear the concept of death has guided their path.

Daniel becomes a military doctor, tasked with assessing soldiers to ensure they are healthy enough to risk their lives overseas.

Varya - slightly on the nose - makes the science of ageing her life's work, eventually making every other element of her existence peripheral.

Shortly after the prophecy, the family fractures and again Benjamin poses the conundrum: was this too caused by the revelation of death?

The author manages to skilfully carry the Gold family history over the decades and shows how there is no escaping one's past, or indeed, it seems, one's future.

-Rob Kidd is an ODT court reporter and books editor.

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