In Chloe Benjamin’s second novel, Klara is a stage magician with a signature act called the Jaws of Life. The trick is that there is no trick: the rope feat simply requires death-defying strength and audacity. In this haunting saga about Klara’s family, The Immortalists is less concerned with gimcrack sleights-of-hand than the acrobatics we undertake in order to cheat mortality.
In the summer of 1969 on New York’s Lower East Side, a Romany woman with “powers” offers each of the Gold children – Klara and her siblings Simon, Daniel and Varya – a prediction of the exact day they will die. Only Varya is vouchsafed old age and the fortune teller responds to her scepticism with some advice: “You wanna know the future? Look in the mirror.” Already teasing determinism and free will apart, Benjamin stands ready to magic this hokey premise into a prismatic philosophical conundrum.
Turning to each sibling in the order of their deaths, the novel sweeps through the ensuing half-century towards the present day. After Simon leaps into the late 1970s San Francisco gay scene “like a dog into water”, he seizes upon sex, drugs, ballet and ultimately romantic love with an urgent joy, but the “gay cancer” claims him barely out of his teens.
Benjamin poses the same question for each Gold: will they die on the augured date because it is their destiny, or because the prediction draws them into an altered pattern of life choices?
The novel garners the doomy sonority of Greek tragedy, even though the various parts are uneven. Like Klara in her early shows, Benjamin is prone to stumbles. Her evocation of how Aids scythed across gay America in the early 1980s feels synthetic compared with Edmund White or Armistead Maupin. Peaking in their youth and beauty, Simon and Klara are the dazzlers here, so the emotional piquancy of the story is frontloaded.
After Klara, Daniel is pulled from middle-aged suburban malaise into the hunt for the Romany fraud ring that spawned their fortune teller, ending up in some hackneyed thriller-style jeopardy. The last sibling, primate researcher Varya, is hardest to embrace – not surprisingly given that her hermetic OCD-fostered avoidance of risk means she has survived rather than truly lived.
But The Immortalists remains a boundlessly moving inquisition into mortality, grief and passion. Rotating the plot cogs around when each of the Golds dies seems less important to Benjamin than fleshing out how these divergent siblings choose to live. From Simon’s grande jetés to Varya’s quest to unlock genetic longevity, each one struggles to snatch some mastery from the jaws of death. The uncannily gifted illusionist Klara proves the real heartbreaker: torn apart by loss and guilt for encouraging Simon to run away with her to San Francisco, the trick she can never accomplish is bringing him back from the dead. The Immortalists is not just a novel about grief; it conjures characters with such dimension that you mourn them too, a magic rare enough to leave one astonished.
• The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is published by Headline (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian