Book Review: THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin

“The impossibility of moving beyond loss, faced against the likelihood you will: it’s as absurd, as seemingly miraculous, as survival always is.”

This book was near perfection.

In New York City in 1969, four siblings visit a mysterious woman who tells them the dates they will die. The rest of the book shows us how each of them chooses to live their lives in light of what they were told.

Was it just a scam? Could it be true? What if the dates of their deaths have been altered by the knowledge itself?

“Varya has had enough therapy to know she’s telling herself stories. She knows her faith-that rituals have power, that thoughts can change outcomes or ward off misfortune-is a magic trick: fiction, perhaps, but necessary for survival. And yet, and yet: Is it a story if you believe it?”

Loss is a big theme in this book, as well as the indomitable ties of family, and the difference between living and merely surviving. It’s not exactly an uplifting story, but it is often pure magic in the telling. We’re transported to San Francisco in the 1970s, where many people first felt it was okay to be gay; to magic shows that don’t aim only to create illusions, but to reveal truth; to labs where primates are used for research on aging; to family gatherings both joyous and fraught with tension, and more.

I adored so many of these characters. Simon and Klara’s parts of the book were my favorites, but Daniel and Varya’s were wonderful in their own ways. Raj and Ruby are lovely, too, and of course we can’t forget Gertie (“After everything I gave you: education, opportunity-modernity! How could you turn out like me?”)

It is worth it to note that, other than the possibility of the fantastical in a woman who may be able to see when you will die, this book is largely literary fiction, with its focus on family dynamics and loss.

Some lines remind me of the exact thoughts I had when my own sister passed away.

“She’d lost both him and herself, the person she was in relation to him. She had lost time, too, whole chunks of life that only [he] had witnessed…”

But the story does bring us ultimately to the fringes where grief meets healing.

“For so long, she stifled these memories. But now, when she calls them up in these sensory ways, so that they feel more like people than ghosts, something unexpected happens. Some of the lights inside her-the neighborhood that went dark years ago-turn on.”

I’ve included so many quotes in this review because the writing was just so exquisite and hard-hitting. I think I may now be an official Chloe Benjamin fan girl, and will make a point to read more of her work. And, because I can’t resist (and at risk of telling you nearly the whole darn story), I’ll end this review with yet more quotes from The Immortalistthat really spoke to me:

“His death did not point to the failure of the body. It pointed to the power of the human mind, an entirely different adversary-to the fact that thoughts have wings.”

 

“They began together: before any of them were people, they were eggs, four out of their mother’s millions. Astonishing, that they could diverge so dramatically in their temperaments, their fatal flaws-like strangers caught for seconds in the same elevator.”

 

“There were times he thought of his siblings and felt love sing from him like a shofar, rich with joy and agony and eternal recognition: those three made from the same star stuff as he, those he’d known from the beginning of the beginning. But when he was with them, the smallest infraction made him irreversibly resentful.”

 

“What will Klara tell her, with frantic and unheard insistence? To [her daughter], Klara’s past will seem like a story, Saul and Simon no more than her mother’s ghosts.”

 

“…Daniel couldn’t understand why they didn’t feel what he had: the regret of separation and bliss of being returned. He waited. After all, what could he say? Don’t drift too far. You’ll miss us. But as the years passed and they did not, he became wounded and despairing, then bitter.”

 

“[Her guilt] shrank…when she was hungry, which she so often was-there were times when she felt light enough to drift toward the sky, light enough to drift toward her siblings.”

 

“‘I was afraid,’ she says. ‘Of all the things that can go wrong when people are attached to each other.'”

In case you couldn’t tell, I really loved this book!

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Book Review: HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

 

Linda’s childhood could be described at best as nontraditional, at worst as isolating and lonely. In her fifteenth year she meets little Paul Gardner and his parents, and everything changes.

The reader knows from the very start that something tragic is going to happen, without knowing exactly what. What unfolds is a moving tale that “confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do—and fail to do—for the people they love”.

In the beginning I did find myself wondering, What is the point of this part of the story? Or that one? (i.e. Mr. Grierson, Lily). But the purpose of each thread is revealed by the second half, which then goes on to wring your heart out for the remainder of the book. Overall I found it to be an ensnaring piece of literary fiction about searching for your place in the world, about guilt, about “the difference between what you want to believe and what you do,” “between what you think and what you end up doing.”

“I’ve found that some people who’ve done something bad will just go ahead and condemn everyone else around them to avoid feeling shitty themselves. As if that even works. Other types of people, and I’m not saying you’re this, necessarily, but I’m just putting it out there, will defend people like me on principle because when their turns come around, they want that so badly for themselves.”

A well-written story that is tragic but irrefutably powerful.