The Girls

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault/coercion

Evie Boyd is fourteen and desperate to be noticed. It’s the summer of 1969 and restless, empty days stretch ahead of her. Until she sees them. The girls. Hair long and uncombed, jewellery catching the sun. And at their centre, Suzanne, black-haired and beautiful.

If not for Suzanne, she might not have gone. But, intoxicated by her and the life she promises, Evie follows the girls back to the decaying ranch where they live.

Was there a warning? A sign of what was coming? Or did Evie know already that there was no way back?

I know I need to find another space to take a photo, but I’m short on options in my new house

I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with The Girls by Emma Cline.

It was about 100 foreboding pages in. I was waiting for a late-running train back to Devon for the weekend. I had resentfully purchased a £5 pasty from Bristol Temple Meads train station because my just under two-hour journey had suddenly become much longer – so long that there wasn’t even a projected arrival time – and I was hungry. The signs read only: delayed.

But me and my pasty-greasy fingers were utterly absorbed in this creepy, gut-wrenching, cult-joining, sexuality-exploring, absolutely gripping read.

I wouldn’t recommend reading The Girls if you want to feel comfortable.

“’You ever hear anything about Russell?’
The question didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand that she was trying to gauge how many of the rumours I’d heard: about orgies, about frenzied acid trips and teen runaways forced to service older men. Dogs scarified on moonlit beaches, goat heads rotting in the sand. If I’d had friends besides Connie, I might’ve heard chatter of Russell at parties, some hushed gossip in the kitchen. Might’ve known to be wary.
But I shook my head. I hadn’t heard anything.”

The Girls is about bored teen Evie Boyd. Apathetic about her friends, her upcoming transfer to boarding school, her parents’ recent divorce and well… just about everything. She mostly hangs out by herself, masturbating and thinking about all of the sex and excitement – though to her those things are one and the same – that are yet to come into her life.

Despite the madness of the scenario – charismatic cult leader, Manson family-style murder – everything that happens in The Girls feels grounded in reality. For however crazy her situation becomes – and it really does – Evie’s experiences and her thoughts about them never felt anything short of authentic.

Cline takes a razor sharp (read: painful) look at emerging sexuality and how it is so often experienced by teenage girls. A whole mess of influences like patriarchy, gender roles, coercion and the drive to always be pleasing play out in upsetting ways as Evie begins her sexual life. There is a sense that she is passive in her sexual experiences, manipulated by older men and complicit women in ways she isn’t yet able to understand. Won’t understand, in fact, until years later, when she is in her middle age and forced see the toxic patterns playing out again for another young girl. A tale as old as time – and a super fucking depressing one.

As so many cult reads (by that I mean literal cult), The Girls is a book preoccupied with power. Who has it – but more, really, about who doesn’t. It looks at the way masculinity can be wielded like a weapon – men who want to take advantage, men who think they know best, men who just want you to feel uncomfortable in the world, for no reason other than it makes them feel good. Men who really don’t care whether you want to have sex with them or not, so long as they get to have sex.

Watching Evie navigate that, from her teen girl summer to the snatches of her life as an adult we’re offered hurt to read, because it felt so familiar.

But this book isn’t all about men – it’s called The Girls, after all. Ultimately, though he is the sun around which everyone else orbits, cult reader Russell doesn’t really do it for Evie. He never did. What brought Evie into the fold was the unreachable Suzanne, who Evie wants in complex and ever-changing ways. From the beginning where she wants to be her – or at least the thing that she appears to be – Evie falls hard for a woman so deep in the cult that she is unable to love her back. Suzanne is too far gone, and watching Evie come to terms with that is a heart-breaking tale of unrequited love as cringe-inducingly familiar as everything else Cline writes in this novel.

“I was happy to twist the meanings, wilfully misread the symbols. Doing what Suzanne asked seemed like the best gift I could give her, a way to unlock her own reciprocal feelings. And she was trapped, in her way, just like I was, but I never saw that, shifting easily in the directions she prompted me for.”

Evie enters a bad world from one where the word’s previous definition came with an air of unreality. She says it herself at various points in the book: nothing bad ever really happens. That’s why she waltzes oddly thoughtlessly on in this never-ending investigating-the-noise-in-the-cellar book. We spend the entire time waiting for a monster, as yet invisible, to appear – and consume her.

It’s hard to get this one out of your head.

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How To Be Alone

Lane Moore is a rare performer who is as impressive onstage – whether hosting her iconic show Tinder Live or being the enigmatic woman of It Was Romance – as she is on the page, as both a former writer for The Onion and an award-winning sex and relationships editor for Cosmopolitan. But her story has its obstacles, including being her own parent, living in her car as a teenager, and moving to New York City to pursue her dreams. Through it all, she looked to movies, TV and music as the family and support systems she never had.

From spending the holidays alone to having better “stranger luck” than with those closest to her to feeling like the last hopeless romantic on earth, Lane reveals her powerful and entertaining journey in all its candour, anxiety, and ultimate acceptance – with humour always her bolstering force and greatest gift.

How To Be Alone is a must-read for anyone whose childhood still feels unresolved, who spends more time pretending to have friends online than feeling close to anyone in real life, who tries to have genuine, deep conversations in a room full of people who would rather you not. Above all, it’s a book for anyone who desperately wants to feel less alone and a little more connected through reading her words.

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This review is difficult to write because How To Be Alone, Lane Moore’s heart breaking, funny, painful and ultimately healing memoir destroyed me for a solid week. Honestly I’m still not over it.

But I knew that would happen going in. Lane Moore appeared on Hannalyze This (an amazing podcast about mental health and processing trauma that I highly recommend you check out) a few weeks back and though I hadn’t heard of her before, I knew by the end of the episode that I needed her book. You know when a book calls to you on, like, a cellular level?

Yeah.

That.

How To Be Alone is a series of essays about Lane’s life, touching on her childhood (Emergency Contact Left Blank) through leaving home (Now You Get To Be An Adult, Even Though You Were Always An Adult. Good Luck!), relationships (So Your Family Dictates Your Romantic Future? What a Fun Punishment! and All This Pain Must Be Worth It Because You’re Supposed To Be My Soul Mate) and loving Jim Halpert from The Office (Am I The Last Hopeless Romantic On Earth?). Lane describes in strikingly honest detail – and I do mean tear yourself in half, blood on the pages honesty – what life is like when your primary support system, your family, is abusive and absent. In moments funny and tear-inducing, she writes of clawing her way to survival by way of the music, TV shows and books she used to build her identity in the absence of any adult affirmation or supervision.

What I loved most about How To Be Alone is it is a memoir written by someone who is still in it, by which I mean to say still in the pain, in the recovery. I heard Lane herself say in an interview that she was sick of reading memoirs by women detailing their painful experiences of negotiating the wilderness alone that almost universally end with… ‘and then I met Jeff and now everything is fine’.

Screw Jeff.

What Lane has produced is a book for people who are still in it. It’s proof that even in the midst of the pain and the horror there are moments of lightness. That feelings of pain – overwhelming and awful and insurmountable as they so often feel – are survivable, because Lane is writing not having survived, but currently surviving.

With almost every significant female written memoir in the story of survival canon ending with the arrival of Jeff, this is no small thing.

What I also appreciated about this book was that she didn’t only write about her struggles with romance, but with platonic relationships too. It’s always bothered me the way people who ‘struggle with relationships’ on TV do so exclusively in the romantic arena – seeming to have no problem maintaining an often large and close knit group of friends. As if feelings of insecurity, feeling like you’re a burden or having boundary issues only matter when sex is involved.

If you’re someone who finds life generally pretty hard, if you had a weird childhood that you’re still struggling with or you’re going through a tough spot right now, then you should read How To Be Alone. You’re likely to find a piece of yourself in there somewhere.

I grew up in a pretty chaotic household. My mum was a single parent and we had no money. She was in an emotionally abusive relationship for a long time (12 years – so basically my entire childhood and still a very large proportion of my life so far) and that person, though I haven’t seen or spoken to him in getting on for a decade, continues to loom large in my life in ways I’ve only really come to understand in the last couple years.

My dad was a very unreliable and often absent, and when he was around, the type who’d do something shitty to you and then find a way to demonstrate that it was actually your fault that he did that thing. We’re not in contact any more.

I do not have an easy time being close with people. I am painfully socially anxious and I second guess literally every single interaction I have. For a long time I just assumed I was broken, but I’ve recently realised (on an intellectual level, anyway) that actually my natural setting of General Dread may not be one I was born with so much as one that was… installed. Healing is a long, hard process I for one have barely even begun, but books like How To Be Alone, filled with pain as they are, go a long fucking way to helping you feel whole again.

In How To Be Alone – even though Lane’s life was a lot (a lot) harder than mine has been – I saw myself reflected in a way I really never have before. There was no neat tying traumatic experiences up in a bow, but instead a slow unfolding of the exhausting process of learning to carry your extensive and heavy emotional baggage – and the hope that you might one day let it all go.

 

 

Roar

Have you ever imagined a different life? Have you ever stood at a crossroads undecided? Have you ever had a moment when you wanted to roar?

The women in these startlingly original stories are all of us: the women who befriend us, the women who encourage us, the women who make us brave. From The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared to The Woman Who Was Kept on the Shelf and The Woman Who Returned and Exchanged Her Husband, discover 30 very different women. Each discovers her strength; each realizes she holds the power to make a change.

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Roar, Cecelia Ahern’s short story offering is a selection of feminist tales that aim to explore the pressures, prejudices, joys and maddening frustrations of women’s lives. The stories weave magical realism into the modern day pressures of motherhood, marriage and aging in a way that was effective if occasionally a little contrived.

Overall, I found Roar to be a pretty mixed bag. I enjoy magical realism, but Ahern’s on the nose use of metaphor at times came across a little heavy handed. The first story in the collection, The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared sees a middle aged woman gradually vanish into nothing – making the point that women in middle age and beyond are ignored and maligned in society (particularly noticeably in the UK, where it’s generally accepted that women aren’t allowed to be on TV anymore once they hit 50). In The Woman Who Wore Pink, gender roles are enforced by a literal Gender Police that sees men and women fined and even imprisoned when they don’t adhere to the roles society has laid out for them. I’m not arguing her point, but there was a layer of subtlety missing in the collection that made me feel like she wasn’t so much showing me her opinion as bashing me over the head with it.

While overall I found this heavy handedness to be disconcerting, there were times when she used it to amusing and deeply satisfying effect. The Woman Who Guarded Gonads, about a world in which men have to appeal to a room of women to be allowed a vasectomy flips the narrative of bodily autonomy on its head and has men held to the same standards women have struggled against since forever. Lines like “And what about the lack of thought for the sperm? Why deny your sperm the right to life?” highlight the utter ridiculousness of the ‘pro-life’ position in a way that was as funny as it was cathartic.

What has left me so on the fence about this collection however was one particular story that left a bad taste in my mouth. The Woman Who Blew Away is the story of a millennial influencer who is obsessed with her Instagram likes, spends hours on her makeup, has plastic surgery and takes lots of selfies who one day “became so light, her head filled with too much nothing, she blew away”. This story was such an outlier – especially in such an overtly feminist collection – built on stereotypes, assumptions and the coding of things typically ‘feminine’ as stupid. In a book packed with complexly imagined women fighting guilt, insecurity and harassment this story of oh she likes makeup and cares about social media so therefore she must be stupid was a slap in the face. It felt very Rashida Jones #stopactinglikewhores level tone deaf and cast a bit of a shadow over the rest of the collection for me – and perhaps extinguished any patience I had kept for the aspects of Ahern’s writing that weren’t working for me.

While it definitely had some triumphant moments, overall Roar was let down by obvious metaphors and Ahern’s decision to give some women complexity and nuance while removing it from others.  It felt very feminism 101, which while still a good thing in itself, didn’t really say anything that was new to me.

Vanishing Twins

For as long as she can remember, Leah has had the mysterious feeling that she’s been searching for a twin – that she should be part of an intimate pair. It begins with dance partners as she studies ballet growing up; continues with her attractions to girlfriends in college; and leads her, finally, to Eric, whom she moves across the country for and marries. But her steadfast, monogamous relationship leaves her with questions about her sexuality and her identity, so she and her husband decide to try an open marriage.

How does a young couple make room for their individual desires, their evolving selfhoods, and their artistic ambitions while building a life together? Can they pursue other sexual partners, even live in separate cities, and keep their original passionate bond alive? Vanishing Twins looks for answers in psychology, science, pop culture, art, architecture, Greek mythology, dance and language to create a lucid, suspenseful portrait of a woman testing the limits and fluidities of love.

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Vanishing Twins: A Marriage, Leah Dieterich’s deliciously written and intimate memoir is consumed with questions of identity, love, queerness and establishment of self – in other words, all of the good stuff.

Dieterich approaches the tension between her identity and her relationship through the metaphor of Vanishing Twin Syndrome – a medical phenomenon in which one twin “consumes” the other in the womb. Dieterich sees herself as the remaining twin, arrived into the world as one half of an as yet unfulfilled pair, charged with searching the world for one who mirrors her perfectly.

She finds it in Eric, marries young and readies herself to live her life in perfect twin-ship with him. Eric is her life, her ambition and the centre of her universe – they agree on everything (turns out it’s not so hard if you are really determined), inspire each other every day and appear to be moving in a perfectly symmetrical trajectory.

Until, suddenly, they’re not.

For Dieterich, the problem of the vanishing twin is constant and evolving. When she finds her twin-ship, creates a “womb-like” life for herself and Eric where all that exists is each other, she risks herself becoming the twin that is consumed.

It’s like we’re the same person. We finish each other’s sentences. This is what we’ve been taught to desire and expect of love. But there’s a question underneath that’s never addressed: once you find someone to finish your sentences, do you stop finishing them for yourself?”

Dieterich spent so much of her young life looking for her “twin”, she forgot to look for herself. In her search she found herself in intense relationships with her female friends – friendships where lines blurred, became sexually charged. She doesn’t want to lose Eric, but as she grows she finds herself desperate to explore her sexuality.

They make the decision together to open up the marriage to other sexual partners. Leah starts a long distance relationship with an artist, Elena, while Eric moves across the country to pursue his artistic career. In their non-monogamy, and subsequently making the choice to no longer live together, both find that they can establish their identities in a way that seemed impossible in their monogamous state. In spending time apart, and with others, it opens up a sense of self independent of the other that neither had had – not since they had been in a relationship, and perhaps ever.

It’s painful and complicated. You question, along with Dieterich, whether the relationship can possibly survive, if independence and monogamy are mutually exclusive states, what her queer identity means when she’s in a relationship with a man and how it can be expressed (and the tension that expression creates).

We are not supposed to live our lives in exclusive pairs. That’s not to say I think monogamy doesn’t work, but that our entire lives can’t, and shouldn’t, be built around one person. What Deiterich discovers through her sexual relationship with Elena, but also her creative partnership with her work colleague, Ethan, is that one person can’t fulfil all of her needs. With Elena she explores her queerness and her art, with Ethan she creates a successful working and creative partnership, and with Eric she grows and changes – pulling apart and drawing together but, ultimately, never letting go.

Through Vanishing Twins, Dieterich explores identity as not just one thing, but a tapestry of elements that evolve, switch and move over time. And that’s okay. That’s as it should be.

Redefining Realness

Trigger warning: sexual abuse

In this profound and courageous New York Times bestseller, Janet Mock establishes herself as a resounding and inspirational voice for the transgender community – and anyone fighting to define themselves on their own terms. With unflinching honesty and moving prose, Mock relays her experiences of growing up young, multiracial, poor and trans in America, offering readers accessible language while imparting vital insight about the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of a marginalised and misunderstood population. Though undoubtedly an account of one woman’s quest for self at all costs, Redefining Realness is a powerful vision of possibility and self-realisation, pushing us all toward greater acceptance of one another – and of ourselves – showing us as never before how to be unapologetic and real.

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I’ve been a big fan of Janet Mock’s for a while now. I loved her Never Before podcast (the Kris Jenner interview!) and her journalism is fantastic, as is her jealousy-inducing Instagram account. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading her first memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More. I mean that title alone screams Lydia, READ ME.

I think sometimes my subconscious tells me to put off reading books until I’m ready for them, and that was very much the case with Redefining Realness. As someone who has spent much of the last year or so consumed by questions about identity (‘be yourself’ is about the most stress inducing advice a person can give me), reading Janet’s story hit me hard. So, next time you’re beating yourself up for not having got to a particular book yet – relax. You’ll read it when the time is right.

In Redefining Realness, Janet details her life from early childhood up until she goes to college and ends with her reassignment surgery. The book is a mix of Janet’s own story with contextualising elements regularly added to place her personal experience into the wider struggles that many trans women, and especially trans women of colour, deal with. She emphasises that her story isn’t representative of the entire community and acknowledges the spectrum of gender, particularly when it comes to parts like her need for reassignment surgery – a procedure that was necessary for Janet specifically, but one that she takes pains to explain is not necessary for all trans women.

Redefining Realness is a memoir that is also a great introduction to transgender identity, the systemic prejudices trans women face and the sometimes deadly consequences those injustices can have.

What I loved most about this book though, was the nuanced, compassionate and equally resentful way that Janet writes about her family. In writing about her parents, Janet navigates the dichotomy of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent with ease. Both of her parents were pretty disastrous, unreliable people while she was growing up. She quickly learned that she had to provide for herself, financially and emotionally, as both her parents had limited room for her needs because they were consumed by dealing with their own. Though both her parents at times appear villainous – her mother with her total focus on her own romantic life at the cost, repeatedly, of her children; her father similarly consumed by his own relationships, drug abuse and a need to impose his ideas of masculinity on the child he didn’t understand – they are also loving, complex people all of their own. Though both regularly let her down, they never let her go. Whether it was her mother nursing her back to health after her surgery, or her father’s response after she came out to him (defensively, aggressively) – “Your disrespect for me is apparent… But I’m the parent and you’re the child and it is not your job to love me the way I love you. My love for you is unconditional” – Janet shows that even in their neglectful moments, both her parents still proved their love for their daughter. Families are complicated, painful, delicate ecosystems and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that represented in a way that felt authentic to me until this book.

Janet’s unflinching commitment to describing every inch of the painful, frightening and vulnerable process of becoming yourself pierces right to the heart of the struggle of growing up. A sense of being in hiding from something is, I think, a state very familiar to many of us, and Janet’s gradual inching out of the shadows is inspiring to read as she comes to terms with the abuse, shame and hardship that led her to becoming the person she is today.

She is fucking epic.

Becoming a person is a long, hard process that requires an awful lot more patience than we ever imagined when we were young. Reading stories like Janet’s is a much needed reminder that struggle, pain and frustration are only one aspect of a long, complicated life. And, once again, that there is a lot of baggage behind even the most glamorous Instagram feed.

Welcome to Lagos

TW: sexual assault

Five runaways ride the bus from Bayelsa to a better life in a megacity. They are unlikely allies – a private, a housewife, an officer, a militant and a young girl. They share a need for escape and a dream for the future. Soon, they will also share a burden none could have expected, but for now, the five sit quietly with their hopes, as the billboards fly past and shout: Welcome to Lagos.

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Once again I have the fantastic Belletrist book club to thank for Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. This was an absolutely delightful take on moving to the city/coming of age story set in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Two military deserters, one former militant with aspirations to be a radio star (and a fake American accent), a student and a homemaker on the run from her violent husband come together as an dysfunctional family during their escape from the violence ridden Niger Delta. War wounds (from spouses, militants and corrupt military generals) weighing heavy on them all, they follow their (somewhat) reluctant leader Chike into their new fast paced, mystifying, occasionally beautiful (but mostly nonsensical) Lagos life.

In addition to our core runaway family, the novel also tells the story of Ahmed, upper middle class UK educated editor of the anti-government (and anti-money. It is totally failing and only allowed to continue because Ahmed’s father used to be pretty high up in the (corrupt) government he is so against) newspaper the Nigerian Journal, and Chief Sandayọ, the (not so) Honourable Minster of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, recently vanished with most of the Ministry’s money.

Realities come crashing together when Chike and co. move into an apparently deserted basement apartment that just so happens to be the secret hideaway of that (not so) Honourable Minister. And the stolen money.

Welcome to Lagos an excellent portrait of survival in a city that wants to eat you alive. In equal parts funny and tragic, we see Onuzo’s complexly realised characters fight to be better in an environment that really only calls for them to be worse. Chike, who, after deserting the army that was his purpose for so long (until his superiors starting ordering kills of anyone who dared disagree with them) is searching for a new cause, anything he can cling to to make it all worth it; Isoken, the student searches for some means of survival after a violent sexual assault; Fineboy the wannabe DJ and the only male member of his family not to have committed suicide fights to see a different end to his story; and Ahmed, so determined to see an end to corruption in his country yet a beneficiary of his father’s corrupt money when he needs it. It’s a novel heavy on irony, with every character swimming the wrong way in a strong current but refusing to be swept away – it’s about the belief that the world can be better despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

“Then Funkẹ had had her religious experience and all that suffering had been put in an unsettling perspective. The sooner the world unravelled, the sooner the second coming of her saviour. Earthquakes, famine, war: all signs and precursors to glorious rapture. It was a rationale to explain a world that never got better. Despite one’s best efforts, despite one’s highest hopes: the world did not change.”

Despite it all it’s not a pessimistic book. It’s a book about trying, even when trying is stupid, even when trying seems to make the situation worse. It’s a book about redemption, and it how it can be found in unexpected places. Most of all it’s a book about not allowing yourself to be lost in the rush of a system or a city much bigger than you, a ‘how to’ guide for keeping your head above water.

“Most likely his doubts would return, with activity, with employment, but he would not regret these days of belief, these moments of faith when all seemed plausible and the world was made in seven days.”

THINGS TO NOTE

If you don’t know anything of Nigeria’s political history (I did not) it is easy to feel disorientated in this story. Fortunately for us, we live in the age of Google so things like this are pretty easy to rectify. You are not going to understand the entire complicated political history of Nigeria since its independence in an afternoon, but you can certainly learn a few things. Here are a few sources I found helpful:

A timeline of key events in Nigeria (starts in 800BC, which is a little early for our purposes but it interesting nonetheless)

This 2011 piece by Remi Adekoya is a good whistle-stop tour of the origins of Nigeria’s problems, particularly with regards to the effects of colonialism and the country’s crude oil, which is mentioned in Welcome to Lagos a few times

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an amazing book you should read anyway, but also paints a picture of Nigeria in its infancy as an independent country. Obviously I’m not saying read this one first, but having read it it gave me a bit more context for the history of Nigeria that was helpful while reading

As with any analysis of a country, all should be read with a critical mindset and an awareness of the authors’ biases, but the above helped give a bit of context when, during my reading, I would find myself feeling like I was misunderstanding vital bits of plot because of a lack of basic knowledge about the country I was reading about. Yay Google!

The Immortalists

It’s 1989, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York’s Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. The four Gold children, too young for what they’re about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes.

Over the years that follow, the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies the fortune-teller gave them that day. Will they accept, ignore, cheat or defy them? Golden-boy Simon escapes to San Francisco, searching for love; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician; eldest son Daniel tries to control fate as an army doctor after 9/11; and bookish Varya looks to science for the answers she craves.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists is a story about how we live, how we die, ad what we do with the time we have.

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My god. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is not a novel to be entered into lightly. I say this as someone who did – grabbing it because it was a Belletrist book club pick I couldn’t afford at the time they were reading it, without really considering what the summary actually meant. Prepare to come face to face with all your existential anxiety because this is a book about death.

But I still think that you should read it.

To be overly honest and unnecessarily grim, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, life is really defined by its finiteness. That fact, and the crippling panic that comes along with it is something that the majority of us are able to ignore most of the time, but in her clever, tragic, depressing, ironic and at times highly frustrating novel, Benjamin tackles a version of life with that deliberate ignorance removed. Bored one day during the summer, the Gold siblings make a decision that will define the rest of their lives: they find out (or think they find out) exactly when they will die, and in doing so, lose the ability to think about almost anything else.

After our introduction to the Gold family, the book is separated into five sections; the beginning, and then four periods of time, each following a Gold sibling through the final years of their lives (or are they?) as predicted by the fortune-teller. How they each respond so differently to the fortune-teller’s prophecy is a credit to Benjamin’s story telling: Simon’s panicked rush to the finish line, determined to get everything he can out of life before his time runs out; Klara’s fatalism, brought about by her undiagnosed mental health problems; Daniel’s aggressive denial; and Varya’s career, built around a desperate search for a way to extend human life – ironic, as she is the only sibling prophesied to grow old.*

*not a spoiler. You find out in the first couple pages.

There are so many interesting things in The Immortalists, but perhaps one of my favourite elements was the way in which Benjamin, no matter how tragic the family become, never once let the Golds off the hook. As they turned inward, able to experience only their own grief and suffering, Benjamin, as if from a great distance, shouts to them about the other pain that exists in the world. I’m not convinced they ever heard her, and the truth and the frustration in this felt very authentic. As Simon navigated the world as a gay man in the seventies he is unable to see – though repeatedly told – that The Castro in San Francisco, the place where he has finally found his home, excludes Robert, his black boyfriend. Klara is unable to look past her own personal tragedies to see those of her partner, Raj. Born in the slums of Bombay, his father gave everything he had to send him to the US and then died before he could follow. Though he tries to make the point to Klara, and to other members of the Gold family, they never quite grasp that there is pain in the world that is structurally built into it, and just as valid as their own.

The Immortalists is a difficult, upsetting, but ultimately beautiful read. Benjamin doesn’t shy away from her subject matter, whether it’s the reality of death and our relationship to it, or the nails-down-a-chalkboard, walking-on-egg-shells, call-screening aspects of being in a difficult family.

It will totally mess you up though, so do read something fun after. I recommend either light fantasy or a YA contemporary romance.