What We Are Reading – The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, has a brilliantly conceived and striking premise that really makes the reader consider life and how best to live it: Four kids living in New York in the late 1960s hear of a local fortune-teller who can give people the date of their death.
With typical childhood curiosity, they track down the fortune-teller, and enter the woman’s apartment one-by-one. She gives them a precise date for their deaths, an experience the children find terrifying, the date never to be revealed to their friends. It also becomes a seminal moment that ends up shaping their entire lives.
The book spans 50 years and revisits each of the children in adult life, staying with them until their deaths. Each character chooses to live their life in a very different way. Simon lives his life to its very fullest, Klara lives in a magical world of her own making, Daniel builds himself a staid and stable life, and Varya lives an utterly joyless life, controlling everything in it, trying to find immortality.
The book invites the reader to question whether the fortune teller really had a genuine gift, or her predictions had become self-fulfilling prophecies. Each character is well developed with a separate and intriguing life story, and although each would sit well in a short story, they are pulled together by this clever premise and their strong familial connection.
Overall this is a saga which, being a book about death, is both heavy and full of amazing life stories. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions about how best to live life, the existence of magic, and the ability to read the future.