I want to be sensitive in my review of this novel, because I know it’s a work of great merit for Chloe Benjamin and is receiving a lot of critical praise. How do I say “This just wasn’t for me” without sounding like a total uncultured swine?
Let me start with a brief plot synopsis. Four Jewish children named Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon go on an adventure to meet a gypsy woman who reads their fortune. She gives them each the date of their death, and the rest of the novel is spent in four intervals–each sibling gets their own section, detailing their life up til their death date.
Simon and Klara move to San Francisco, where Simon begins his life as a dancer, living happily as openly homosexual in the 1970’s. Klara pursues a life in the limelight as a magician, calling her act The Immortalist (yes, we are but mere mortals but the interconnectedness of family is immortal, we understand.) Daniel goes to school to become a doctor in the army and marries the woman of his dreams who cannot have children of her own, and Varya, the eldest and seemingly least important sibling in this novel, becomes a scientist with a severe case of OCD.
The novel starts off really solid. Though the pace of the writing starts and stops like a chugging train (sentences is this novel are obnoxiously short and unvaried, reminding me of “I think I can. I think I can.”) it carries us unceasingly to the climax of each sibling without much preamble. There are some superfluous characters (Eddie the cop, who serves literally no purpose aside from random instigation when the plot deems it necessary) and some really silly police work into the criminality of the old Roma woman who gives the children fortunes (maybe she did it on purpose to put the idea into their heads and now their deaths are roundabout murders, but no not really.) Klara and Daniel’s deaths are just strangely forced and feel very against the nature of the characters Benajmin spends such time and tact developing.
I guess focusing on the deaths of the siblings detracts from the actual purpose of the novel, to delve into the branches of this family tree that extends beyond the core and into the immortal. But the concept was so much better than the delivery that I can’t help but linger on them, overshadowing what is probably a very passionate and complete novel for those who aren’t me.
“Most adults claim to not believe in magic, but Klara knows better. Why else would anyone play at permanence–fall in love, have children, buy house—in the face of all evidence there’s no such thing? The trick is not to convert them. The trick is to get them to admit it.”
I received this book from Penguin Random House via Bookish First for an honest review. Images from chloebenjaminbooks.com