W.W. Norton & Company
2018, 256 pp, S25.95
My mother-in-law seemed to have inexhaustible energy, raising eight children while she was a partner in her husband's Chicago bookstore, but she died tragically before her 50th birthday. One of her last afternoons stands out in my memory. I remember watching as she sat up in bed, restlessly twisting her hands together. Then, glancing into one of the dim corners of the room, she said, drawing the words out, "I don't know what to do. I've never had nothing to do before." For both of us it was a moment of epiphany, and nothing more needed to be said; we suddenly understood the concrete meaning of the futurelessness of death. Dara Horn's new novel, Eternal Life, imagines two characters who have made a sacred pact that consigns them to lives that will never end. Tethered to wearying and repetitive perpetuity, they cannot encounter the crossover from purpose to purposelessness that my mother-in-law experienced. The author makes it clear this is a destiny one ought not to wish for.
As with her 2013 novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, Horn has taken on a challenging project here with a light hand, crisscrossing strands of plot and a timeline stretching from the era of the Second Temple to the present day, or rather the day after today, since she imagines one of her characters as a biologist responsible for a breakthrough medication that successfully treats dementia. Although the story is fantastical, Horn buttresses her fiction with historical and biblical research, inserting part of the biography of the sage Yochanan ben Zakkai into her text, imagining him as the first son of Rachel, her protagonist, and thinking back on him as, "the wise one, the reason for everything that followed."
The book is a hybrid of sorts, including elements of parable, dystopia, science fiction, Jewish feminism ("Never before in her life had a man done a household chore for her; nor would it happen again for another two thousand years"), and policy tract, arguing against the Silicon Valley immortalists who have invested small fortunes seeking a God pill to deliver them from death. Horn clearly enjoys the activity of spinning a tale, drawing out drama with exigent circumstances that require action and decision-making on the part of her characters. The result is an entertaining but farfetched potboiler.
At the opening of the novel, Rachel is a worn-out and cranky 84-year-old Jewish matriarch living in...