Knowledge is Power(less) in The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (book review)
GENRE: Adult Historical Fiction
LENGTH: 346 pages
The Gold Siblings (Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya) go to see the mystical woman on Hester Street in 1969. She reveals to the four the days they will die and it informs the rest of their lives.
All four of the Gold siblings are main characters in this novel. Each one is impacted in some major way by their encounter with the woman on Hester Street. Simon becomes impulsive and reckless, Klara becomes paranoid, Daniel copes with deep regret, and Varya struggles with loneliness.
Though the siblings weren’t particularly close their story lines really are a domino effect. As I said, all of them construct their lives based on their personal prophesies. However, their actions are also affected by the fates of the each other. This added an extra layer that made the story both more fascinating and far sadder. I knew as the novel progressed that things weren’t going to get better but worse for the characters. I began to feel this strange mixture of anticipatory anxiety and hope that things may turn out differently than I predicted.
I do have a few critiques of the characters. The first is that the romances of each sibling fell pretty flat. Klara’s romance was the most well developed and nuanced while Daniel’s was the blandest. However, none of them were given enough time to develop. My bigger critique, however, is of Simon’s age. Given his story line I personally would have aged him up by a couple of years (at least).
Finally, the woman on Hester Street is Romani, an often discriminated against and generally misunderstood culture. I am not here to claim that I have much knowledge on the Romani people, I just question the decision to make a character from a historically mistreated group a pseudo-villainous character.
The novel is told from the third person perspectives of each of the Gold siblings. I was curious how the siblings’ stories would be handled from the perspective of being a writer myself. What Benjamin did was essentially break the novel into four parts. The first part follows Simon’s life, the second Klara’s, the third Daniel’s, and the final Varya’s. All siblings were either mentioned or made appearances in their siblings' chapters so that they were still at the forefront of your mind. This was probably the simplest but also most effective way it could have been handled.
Thematically, the novel deals with a question many of us have pondered before; if you could know your future, when you’re going to die; would you want to? What would you do with the information? How would it inform your life’s decisions? It follows naturally from there that it also deals with the concept of self-fulfilling prophesy (an angle that interested me as a former psych major). The novel's idea isn't exactly innovative, but it's always engaging to hear another's perspective on such a question.
The novel never actually answers the question of if the woman on Hester Street was truly able to see the future or if it was the siblings’ belief she could that ultimately led to their fates. I have my own theory, but I liked that on this the book doesn’t take a firm stance. This allows the novel to tow that line between historical fiction and magical realism.
FINAL THOUGHTS I had very confusing thoughts on this novel as a whole. The concept is one that was a smart foundation for a novel in that it captures the attention and curiosity of many. I grew to care for most of the characters despite their fates feeling set from the story’s onset. I think the writing format was pretty strong. Yet despite all these things I can compliment, there was too much about this novel that felt a little too unbaked. It’s also just an overall somber book that, despite what it attempts to do at the very conclusion, doesn’t inspire much hope in its reader. There’s also INCREDIBLY triggering material in this book including grief, suicide, gun violence, and animal testing, among others. This was probably the hardest book for me to rate that I’ve read this year.