Wednesday 4 September 2019

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin has a fabulous premise - 'if you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?'

Even before opening the book, Mr Books and I had one of those after dinner, slightly boozy conversations based purely on this premise. Did we really want to know when we were going to die? If you knew, would you make the most of the time you had left or would you spend all that time trying to change the outcome somehow? Would you put yourself in risky situations, knowing or believing that you couldn't die for another few years or so? Would it be a blessing or a curse? What does it say about fate and free will?

I was also rather taken by the cover. Like Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon, I am one of four siblings. Benjamin managed to capture the fierce closeness and almost inevitable distance that can occur within larger families as well as the various pairings and alliances that form and dissolve over time.

These four siblings all received very distinct death dates. Right from the very start, this knowledge had a profound impact on each of them. So much so, that they were unable to talk about it for years. It wasn't until their father's death, that they all revealed their death date to each other, except for the youngest, Simon, who simply revealed that his fate was to die young.

We then followed all four siblings until their predicted death dates.

Benjamin does great story telling. The book was an engaging, easy read. The siblings felt authentic as fully realised individuals. Except for perhaps, the eldest, Varya, whose story veered off into some odd or convenient (for the author) directions that left this reader scratching her head, wondering where did that came from!

Simon's approach to his death date was the only one that I felt was easy to understand and accept. The question was raised about whether he chose to live the life he lived believing that he was doomed to die young anyway or whether he might have made different choices without that knowledge.

Klara and Daniel's approach to their death dates bamboozled me (if you've read this book & would like to discuss in the comments, please do so, but I will leave the main post spoiler free). I simply didn't understand why they did what they did as their predicted death dates approached.

Which for me, is the fatal flaw with this book.

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed my time between these pages, thinking about the possibilities and consequences of knowing what might happen if you knew when you were going to die, the siblings reactions and choices didn't really address or resolve this in a way I found satisfying. Their actions and reactions felt like the author creating four separate examples that didn't quite gel with their back stories. In fact, the back stories completely failed to enlighten me about the mental health issues and psychological impact of this knowledge. I was waiting for some deep, existential angst that never turned up to the party. Stuff happened, and I couldn't always connect the dots as to why.

The Immortalists turned out to be a fast food story for me. Thoroughly tasty at the time, a guilty pleasure even, but now a few days later, I'm left wanting more and feeling slightly dissatisfied.

I read this for my book group's September gathering.
Book 23 of #20 Books of Summer Winter


  1. I love your reviews. All of them. Whether I've read the book or not, I just loved them. I believe I'd have felt like you. I do love when books come together well, when characters are well built, when the potential of the book is reached, -or mostly reached-. I don't like when the souffle deflates, as you say it was the case here.

    1. Thank you Silvia - your comment was a lovely way to start my day :-)

      And a souffle is the perfect metaphor for this book - I'll use that if I may, when my book group meets next week.

    2. Absolutely! Have fun discussing it.

  2. I'm one of four siblings, but we don't hang out and I don't think I'd know if the others had set death dates. I always thought I'd die at 75 but now it's getting close I don't feel any different than I did at 50 so I suppose I'll go in my 80s like my forbears before me. Keep working is my motto. Bill Holloway


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