by Chloe Benjamin
If you knew the date of your death, how would it change your life?
Would you dare more — or play it safe? Would you embrace life — or try to avoid death? And what about those whom you love — and who love you back — how do they go forward without you?
For the Gold siblings — Varya, 13; Daniel, 11; Klara, 9: and Simon, 7 — these are vital questions.
In search of excitement during the summer of 1969, they follow neighborhood gossip to find a psychic who supposedly can tell you the date of your death. One at a time, she tells the children what they seek. After each conversation, the psychic guides the child out of her apartment and down the fire escape. They don’t discuss what they learn for years; some of the siblings never reveal what the psychic tells them.
Varya later describes it like a virus that feeds one sibling’s anxiety, another’s rage or lust for sprinting through life or dreamily disengaging.
Author Chloe Benjamin has created a haunting story that touches on four generations of the Gold family. She lyrically describes family connections and resentments, secrets and guilt. Many years later, remembering the last time he spoke to his brother Simon, Daniel realizes, “In Simon’s voice, he heard the siren song of family — how it pulls you despite all sense; how it forces you to discard your convictions, your righteous selfhood, in favor of profound dependence.”
Varya grows up to be a researcher into the mysteries of human longevity. Talking to a therapist, Varya realizes that “she had lost parts of herself as she lost her siblings. It was like watching the power incrementally turning off throughout a neighborhood: certain parts of her went dark, then others. Certain modes of bravery — emotional bravery — and desire. The cost of loneliness is high, she knows, but the cost of loss is higher.”
Ultimately, Varya loses much more than she ever thought was survivable. In the process, she rediscovers lost relationships and gifts she never allowed herself to savor.
In the end, we all die. No matter how long or short our lives are, the quest is ultimately about living. Benjamin shines a gentle and perceptive light on the matter.
About the Author: Chloe Benjamin
Chloe Benjamin’s first novel was The Anatomy of Dreams. It received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was long listed for the 2014 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.
Originally from San Francisco, she is a graduate of Vassar College and holds a master’s of fine arts degree in fiction from the University of Wisconsin. She and her husband live in Madison, WI.