The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

“If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?”

The Immortalists hinges on the question above, and explores how four siblings’ lives play out after finding out, as children, the dates of their deaths. This was my virtual book club’s March pick. I finished reading it a week ago, but I feel like I’m still processing some things about this book. It’ll be interesting to see how tonight’s conversation goes.

I loved Chloe Benjamin’s writing. The prologue starts off with our four sibling protagonists as children, and it reads like an especially beautifully-written middle grade novel. This style places you right into the children’s perspective, complete with all their wonder and curiosity, bravery and trepidation. That prologue really set the stage for the rest of the story. The writing style changes tone as the children grow up, and we as readers are swept along in it. I was surprised by how much of the book is written in present tense. It’s done so well that I didn’t actually notice until halfway through.

This was a seriously well-crafted, absorbing story, but there were a couple aspects that gave me mixed feelings.

Simon: Her writing of gay characters is stereotypical and a little…weird. At times it bordered on caricature-like because of its heavy focus on gayness as tragedy, through an obviously straight lens. That didn’t feel good as a queer reader. I should not see the “bury your gays” trope coming when I’ve practically just met the character. But I can’t deny that there are also some very tender moments that are handled beautifully, and the tragedy of it all hit hard. And there’s a side character from Simon’s life who reappears at the end, whose words clarified some things for me and redeemed some of these reservations. (Not all, but some.)

The Romani rep was not good. Honestly, I thought it was pretty disrespectful. “Magical Romani” and “Dishonest Romani” tropes are all throughout this novel. There are a few half-hearted lines about how they’re misunderstood, they’re “not all like that,” but these lines were so feeble they seemed like an afterthought, as if she was trying to justify writing offensive descriptions of the fortune teller’s family.

So yes, these two cliché, contrived aspects were frustrating, but I have to say, I was fully invested in these siblings’ lives and loved reading about them. They were all so different from each other! And I was completely dazzled by Chloe Benjamin’s writing style. So I don’t regret my time spent with The Immortalists, and I’m likely to read more of her work.

TW: AIDS, death, homophobia, homophobic slurs, violence, racism, racist slurs, alcoholism, poverty, animal cruelty, OCD, health anxiety