There’s something unsettling about books that make you stare mortality in the face. After I finished The Immortalists I sat down and – for the first time ever – made a bucket list. Even if I never learn to create a soufflé or walk the Pennine Way, it gave me back the sense of control that this story rips away.
The Immortalists begins in New York in the late 1960s. Sitting in a too-hot apartment during the summer holidays four siblings, aged between thirteen and seven, decide to go and see a fortune teller.
The woman reveals the date of each child’s death. Some have decades, others only have a few years left. The rest of the book follows each of the children in the Gold family in turn. We’re shown how (and if) the news changes the way they live their lives.
Guess the Genre
I’ve no idea how to categorise this book. The psychic gets the story moving but this isn’t a straight-forward fantasy. It’s left up to the reader to decide whether the fortune teller knew the future or if the children’s reactions create a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The tone of the story changes depending on which of the four takes centre stage. In fact, the very first paragraph nearly made me stop reading and chuck the book away. I’m glad I persevered as it was a fast-paced read that I finished in just over a day.
We follow Simon, the youngest brother, first. He breaks free from his family expectations and joins San Francisco’s gay scene. He accompanies his older sister, Klara, as she establishes herself as a stage magician and eventually meets her future husband.
The two older children stay at home to care for their mother. Daniel becomes a military doctor, Varya is a scientist researching longevity.
At every step, we’re forced to ask how far the fortune teller’s news influences decisions the siblings make. Simon refuses to be pushed into taking over his father’s tailoring business, Klara uses magic to understand the world and has dark thoughts about the date of her death, normally conventional Daniel takes drastic action and Varya isolates herself and tries to prolong her life.
The Immortalists’ main characters are nicely drawn. Some of their behaviour (especially Daniel’s) seemed implausible, but even if I didn’t enjoy all four stories to the same extent, but they showed an interesting range of reactions.
It’s the complex connection between the siblings that makes this book a joy to read. Even when they’re not together they’re in each other’s thoughts. It’s not a straightforward happy relationship and they all have their own regrets, but the way they interact is heartrendingly realistic.
Gertie, their mother, is another an interesting character who tries (sometimes misguidedly) to give her children advantages she hadn’t had. In the end, she also has the best line in the book. When her daughter admits that a trip to a fortune teller has haunted the family for decades, the normally superstitious woman asks: “How could you believe that junk?”
Verdict: The Immortalists gave me food for thought. Would I live my life differently if I knew how long was left? I’m not sure, but I’m planning to work through my bucket list and have a go at making that soufflé.