Amidst too many good reads, what to read next can be a tough decision, even when I embark on several books at any given time. Sometimes such contemporaneous reading can slow me down particularly when I have to contend with work and numerous distractions like errands, emails, WhatsApp messages. There are evenings when I feel torn as to how I could maximize my time in the evening that I reserve for ‘me’ time and be more efficient and effective in doing what I really want to do. As I age, I feel the urgency rising looking at the books that I have not read and want to read and the stories that I want to write. I was thinking about what happens if people know when they will exit from life and then I came across The Immortalists written by Chloe Benjamin when I was browsing around a bookstore during one of my work trips out of town two years ago.
It is 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, four Gold children, Varya aged 13, Daniel, aged 11, Klara, aged 9 and Simon, aged 7 visit a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. After they each know their sell-by date, the Golds become consumed by what they have been told and the big question: If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life.
The stories of the four siblings are told in four different parts, starting with Simon who runs away from home and is determined to live the life that he wants after being told that he will die at 21 years old. Both Simon and Klara leave home at a young age. Simon has dyslexia and has never been a good student. As a child, he loves to visit his father’s tailor and dressmaking shop but as a teenager, the women’s clothing bore him and the wools make him itch. When his dad dies, he is the one who will be groomed to succeed his father’s business since his older brother plans to be a doctor. He is close to Klara who later becomes a magician and is inclined to tempt fate as she performs the Jaws of Life, the act of dangling from high ceilings with the bit of rope between her teeth.
The author, Benjamin gives a detailed description of Klara’s act.
‘There is no gap between failure and success – the timing is perfect or it is disastrous — and her pulse trills as she lashes the ascension rope to the batten from a ladder, as she wraps it thrice with sash cord and puts a safety break on the reverse rope. On stage, she measures seventy-five inches up from the floor; her own five feet six inches, plus seven for her fee when pointed, and a two -inch clearance to the ground.’
Klara, too, has an early date with death. Klara knows that Simon is gay so they both head to San Francisco where Simon is comfortable and it is there he discovers that he can dance well. They become estranged from their widowed mother and their older siblings who are attending college. Daniel becomes a military doctor certifying who can go to war while the bookish and OCD Klara plunges into research about prolonging life. According to the psychic, Klara lives till the ripe old age of late eighties while Daniel lives past middle age. Daniel is guilt-ridden by Simon and Klara’s early exits as he has been the one who has told them about the psychic. The knowledge about when they die seems to have compelled the Gold children to make certain life choices. It appears that the youngest two siblings have been living capriciously and consequently driven themselves to their early deaths leaving the older siblings wondering if their destinies could have been different. When their lives end early, it is as if they have lived to fulfil the prophecy made by the psychic. Years later, when their widowed mother, Gertie find out from Varya that her children have been to the psychic and believed in the prophecies, she is indignant.
“ How could you believe that junk?” she asks, quietly.
Varya opens her mouth. Gertie puts the yogurt container beside the spoon and folds her hands in her lap, looking at Varya with owlish indignation.
“ We were kids,” says Varya. “ She frightened us. And anyway, my point is that it isn’t —-”
“ Junk!” says Gertie, decisive now, leaning back in her chair. “So you went to see a Gypsy. No one’s stupid enough to believe them.”
“ You believe in that kind of junk. You spit when a funeral goes by. After dad died, you wanted to that thing with the chicken, swinging a live one around in the air while reciting —-”
“ That’s a religious ritual.”
“ And the funeral spitting?’
What about it ?”
“What’s your excuse?”
“Ignorance. What’s yours? You don’t have one,” she says when Varya pauses. “ After everything I gave you: education, opportunity —- modernity! How could you turn out like me?”
It is then Varya sees that what Gertie has given her children: the freedom of uncertainty. The freedom of an unsure fate, her dad Saul would have agreed.
“As the only child of immigrants, her father had few options. To look forward or back must have felt ungrateful, like testing fate –the free present a vision that might vanish he took his eyes away from it. But Varya and her siblings had choices, and the luxury of self-examination. They wanted to measure time, to plot and control it. In their pursuit of the future, though they only drew closer to the fortune teller’s prophecies. “
The Immortalists is a heartwarming and sad story about a Jewish family in New York. The novel explores the line between destiny and choice.