The idea that death is not a final ending is one with enduring appeal. Even for — or especially for — those who don’t have religious beliefs about the afterlife, the possibility that there might be a loophole is irresistible. As unlikely as it may seem that such an earthshaking revelation would come to light in a literary novel, one can’t help approaching three new books titled “The Immortalists,” “The Afterlives” and “Eternal Life” with a slightly different flavor of attention, whether it’s the hopeful interest of the believer or the raised eyebrow of the skeptic. Each novel takes a quite different approach to the issue of our mortality.
Chloe Benjamin’s “The Immortalists” (Putnam, 346 pp., $26) begins in 1969 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The four Gold siblings, ages 7 to 13, find a way to break out of their midsummer doldrums when they visit a traveling psychic who promises to them the exact dates of their deaths. The reader is let in only on the prediction given the oldest, a daughter: She will live until January 21, 2044.
The next four sections focus on each sibling in turn, continually ratcheting up the tension about whether the predictions are real and if they can be escaped. One Gold becomes a dancer, one a Las Vegas stage magician, one a military doctor, one a longevity researcher; all are complicated and unhappy people, with plenty of grievances against one another. In fact, the novel is a Jewish-American family saga, driven more by fatalism and psychology than by magic. But even when the psychic who made the predictions turns out to be a con artist wanted by the FBI, there is no denying their power. In Benjamin’s world, the point of magic “is not to negate reality but to peel back its scrim, revealing reality’s peculiarities and contradictions.”
The complex relationship between the normal and the paranormal is also central to “The Afterlives” by Thomas Pierce (Riverhead, 366 pp.,$27), a novel set in the near future, where both church services and most clerical jobs are performed by holograms. As one young widow says of the ghost of her late husband, “It’s not like he’s haunting that chair. It’s more like . . . I’m haunting him into it.” This woman is dating the narrator, John Byrd, who also has a close relationship with death — due to a heart problem, he died at 33 but was revived a few minutes later. Now he lives with an app on his phone that controls his heart, as well as with the terrible feeling that there’s no afterlife — at least not that he could see.
Then his job as a loan officer gets him involved with a Mexican restaurant that has a very weird staircase, where people often have accidents, feel as if someone’s grabbing them or hear something about a dog on fire. His investigation of this phenomenon leads him to an experimental physicist who has begun to successfully explore life after death. The relationship between death and love is at the heart of this book, and it’s at its best when most romantic.
Of the trio under consideration, the only one to go all out for magic and fantasy is Dara Horn’s “Eternal Life” (W.W. Norton & Company, 236 pp., $25.95). This is the story of Rachel, a woman who has been alive for 2,000 years, and really just wants out. It all began back in Roman-occupied Jerusalem when she got herself in a tricky situation — married to one man, pregnant with another’s man baby. Fortunately the baby daddy, Elazar, was the son of the High Priest. So when the child began to suffer from a fatal wasting disease, Rachel and the father were able to bargain with God, trading their deaths for his life.
Since then, Rachel has had hundreds of children in dozens of families, and had to watch each of them die, unable ever to die herself and always running into Elazar, who is also marooned in the living world. Her latest family includes a gene researcher, an internet prospector and a granddaughter who tweets this: “My grandmother just told us she can’t sign off on her will because she CAN’T DIE. #crazyoldlady.” Horn does not hedge her bets, whipping up a Jewish telenovela of ancient-world drama and present-day complications. It’ll put you off immortality for good.