Chloe Benjamin Stares into the Future
The great majority of us scoff at the idea of fortune-tellers and mystics, categorizing them as nothing but tricksters willing to prey on the naive through foolery of a bygone era. The idea of being able to see into one’s future defies what we know of human capabilities and would contain massive implications for the overall functioning of life. As much as some of us hate to admit it, while we don’t believe in reading someone’s future, we would certainly love for it to be real. After all, how many of us wouldn’t want the immense power which comes with knowing what fate holds in store for us? Though in real life this mostly feels like a pipe dream, in the world of literature it’s only a pen stroke away from turning into reality. In Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, we are introduced to four kids who are given exactly such an opportunity.
The premise for the story is quite a simple one: it’s 1969 and a travelling mystic appears in New York City’s Lower East Side. Allegations circulate of the psychic woman’s ability to peer into the future and reveal to others the date of their death. One night, four adolescents on the verge of self-discovery, the Gold children, sneak out to get a taste of what their fortunes might be. Each and every one of them have the dates of their deaths revealed, and so begin their individual journeys through their own fates. Simon, the golden boy, is destined to head out to San Francisco in search of love. Klara, always the dreamy one, makes a career of being a Las Vegas magician. The eldest son enlists as an army doctor after the 9/11 attacks. Finally, the bookworm Varya throws herself into research seeking to bridge the gap between science and immortality. Having their entire lives laid out before them, will the children make use of this immeasurable gift? Or will it turn out to be nothing but a heavy burden? Will the mere knowledge of their death change the course of their lives into a different direction?
The Fate-bound Children
While the premise for this novel is rather unique and may seem a bit complicated, Benjamin tackled it in a very simplistic and enjoyable manner. Essentially, the book is divided into four sections, each one following the life of one of the Gold children. We follow them as they grow up in their own different ways, eventually finding out at the end of each story whether or not the psychic’s predictions were indeed correct. This was, in my opinion, a rather clever way of creating a source of tension in a story which otherwise wouldn’t really have all that much of it. Constantly wondering and trying to figure out just how trustworthy the psychic was added an interesting element of uncertainty and even turned her into a sort of unwilling antagonist.
Anyhow, returning to the children, the idea of focusing on each and every one of them individually was a good choice for this particular story, mostly because it allowed us to get intimately acquainted with each and every one of them with no distractions. It is quite interesting to witness just how different the children of the same family turned out, how ultimately none could ever guess they were related at all. They all have very distinct characters and unique personalities, fleshed out as profoundly as possible so as not to tip them too far to either the likable or hateable extremes. Personally though I wasn’t all that interested in Simon or nor his love-seeking story in San Francisco; stories revolving around love are generally uninteresting to me personally, but ultimately this one wasn’t painful to read through. Thankfully though, if one of the stories isn’t up your alley, there are three other very different ones which certainly might be; there is definitely something for everyone here.
The Effect of a Prophecy
While the individual stories of the children growing up are interesting in their own rights, I found the overall originality of the premise to be the real show-stealer. Benjamin ponders in great depth on the implications of knowing one’s date of death, whether they believe it or refute it. We get to see four examples of how this information might not only shape a person internally, but also guide their life and affect all those surrounding them. Does knowing it allow one to avoid it? Does it eventually turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy? How different would things have turned out had this encounter with the mystic never taken place?
In turn, this opens the philosophical floodgates for the author, who uses the opportunity to ask quite a few questions about life in a more general sense. She examines the merits of taking risks in life versus playing it safe, whether free will can exist as a reality or merely as an illusion, whether a path set in stone can ever be changed. Chloe Benjamin is quite adept at weaving these philosophical meditations into the four stories, generally exploring them through the characters’ actions or plot events rather than dialogues or monologues. This approach helps keep the overall story cohesive without any annoying breaks from the plot in favour of deliberations. In other words, the author managed to include her personal reflections into the story in a way which complements it, rather than dumbing it down into boredom.
The Final Verdict
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is certainly one of the more unique and thought-provoking coming of age stories I have read in recent memory. The original premise does a magnificent job at capturing your attention, each character represents an interesting study, and the author knows how to consistently push us towards our own personal reflections. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys profound stories about family and growing up.
Chloe Benjamin is an American author hailing from San Francisco, California. She graduated from Vassar College and earned an MFA in Fiction at the University of Wisconsin. Her first published novel, titled The Anatomy of Dreams, was the recipient of the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award. Her second book, The Immortalists, has only further cemented her place amongst the growing powerhouse of independent writers.