Tea leaves, palms, parakeets, the foamy froth of urine, the livers of sacrificed animals — you name it, someone somewhere has tried to use it to divine their future.
It is impossible to know whether any of these methods is capable of yielding insights about what awaits us. Still, we persist. In New York, taking money to read fortunes is illegal though a court in California ruled it should be treated much like stock broking and political polling , yet people spend many tens of thousands of dollars visiting psychics. But this enduring fascination with divining our destiny raises a few questions: why do we want to know?
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And what would happen if we actually found out? Despite millennia of attempts, we know little of what might result from learning our fate.
It is this question — how would knowing our fate change the way we our lives? The book follows each of the siblings in turn as they move across the country, take diverse paths, and meet their fate, exploring how the knowledge of their impending death affects each of them in turn. Not knowing when or how it will strike propels us in strange ways. But the stories of this book serve as a warning against a desire for knowledge. Destiny becomes, for the characters, an inescapable burden, a terrible reminder that each life comes with an expiry date.
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This question is not a new one, and variations on this tension — between fate and choice, structure and agency — have intrigued writers in the social and philosophical sciences for centuries. Foucault felt that the answer rests somewhere in between the poles of fate and choice. However, everything is contingent, says Foucault, and each actuality should be considered just one of an infinite set of possible arrangements that could be occurring at that very moment.
We make choices, influenced by unknowable factors both internal and external to us, that lead us towards these contingencies. Mercurial Klara, who will die in her 30s, pursues her lifelong fascination with magic, developing an act that will take her to Las Vegas. The two elder siblings stay in New York to take care of their mother. Daniel becomes a military doctor, Varya a scientist whose academic research with primates investigates the prolonging of life. Does it liberate you to live life to the full or does it hobble you, stripping you of agency?
What is it that you choose to believe in?
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By leaving open the question of whether the clairvoyant is a seer or a fraud, Benjamin allows each of the siblings to react in their own way, in accordance with their nature. The investigation Varya is conducting into human longevity is too heavy-handedly metaphorical for its own good. Benjamin has researched her material meticulously and too much information makes its way undigested on to the page; there are also several moments where the plot veers towards the preposterous.
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But despite these cavils The Immortalists worms its way under your skin. Benjamin writes with verve and charm and her four protagonists are resolutely real. She is particularly good at the sibling bond, the unbreakable ties that bind brothers and sisters together even as they drive each other to distraction.
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The novel begins in Technicolor, with all the eager vitality of youth, and gradually slows and darkens as the weight of loss accumulates, casting a long shadow over the siblings who remain. I am willing to predict that The Immortalists will see book groups across the UK vigorously debating the issue.
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