Chloe Benjamin’s second novel, “The Immortalists” — a decades-spanning tale of a family — has magic at its core.
by Chloe Benjamin
Putnam, 343 pp., $26
Reading fiction is, if you think about it, a kind of magic: Tiny dark letters, on a white background, are transformed — poof! — into vivid, colorful, breathing stories. Entire lives unfold, on those plain pages; we travel, in our armchairs, with them, through multiple years and cities and rooms. We meet strangers, love them and let them go, all while barely moving a muscle.
Chloe Benjamin’s second novel, “The Immortalists,” is one of those hocus-pocus experiences — and, appropriately, it has magic at its core. It’s a decades-spanning tale of a family, whom we meet in a vivid prologue: Four young siblings — Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon Gold, whose ages range from 13 to 7 — slip away from their mother Gertie’s gaze and visit a psychic in their Lower East Side neighborhood in 1969; a woman who, they’ve heard, can tell you exactly when you’ll die. Varya, in her brief meeting with the woman, is told she’ll live to be 88; her younger siblings, visibly upset, don’t share what fates they were given.
It’s just a brief moment in a busy childhood, and the book promptly zips ahead to follow the Gold siblings in adulthood. Simon, knowing only that he needs to run, and run far, drops out of high school and heads for San Francisco in the late ‘70s; in Harvey Milk’s Castro neighborhood, he feels “powerful and safe.” Klara, obsessed with the art of illusion, becomes a professional magician, dubbing herself The Immortalist. In her act, she hopes “not to deceive but to impart a different kind of knowledge, an expanded sense of possibility.”
The author of “The Immortalists” will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11, at Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (elliottbaybook.com or 206-624-6600).
Daniel, who becomes an Army doctor, doesn’t believe in magic but remains haunted by that day in 1969; it’s a memory “like a minuscule needle in his stomach, something he swallowed long ago and which floats, undetectable, except for moments when he moves a certain way and feels a prick.” And Varya, the child who boldly walked away from the psychic — surprising herself in her suddenly adultlike ability to be cold — devotes her life to science, exploring what some call anti-aging research, but which she prefers to call “longevity.”
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Benjamin, whose previous novel was the Edna Ferber Fiction Award-winning “The Anatomy of Dreams,” slips into each of the characters’ heads and lets us live there for a while, writing in a delicate third-person voice that knows everyone’s secrets. There are moments as taut as a thriller, where time disappears as you turn pages; and passages of quiet compassion, as the characters reflect on the bonds of siblinghood, on the idea of home, on how those we have lost can still manage — miraculously and mysteriously — to stay with us, in ways that we can’t always explain. Its ending is unexpectedly emotional, as a wise secondary character comes to realize that “magic is only one tool among many for keeping one another alive.”