W. W. Norton & Company
January 23, 2018
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Mortality looms–heavily, quietly, eternally. There are no words powerful enough to describe its weight, no nuanced comparison or metaphor that can quite capture the subtleties, and overwhelming realities, of our humanity at the end of life. Yet still, it remains, so we make do with the tools at our disposal. We often conceptualize this ever-present specter as something of a cage, a transparent boundary that holds our lives prisoner with nothing more than time. But this line in the sand can have its merits.
Death helps establish a history, providing a clear and natural temporal framework in which we structure events. Born from this limited amount of time is an existential motivation to find meaning in the human life, and to disrupt the uncontrollable ebb of history with unique markers of your history and all your hopes for the future. Whether you spend your history devoted to yourself, to family and friends, or to the higher being of your faith, death becomes the final arbitrator against which we characterize what it means to be human. And death connects us all to one another in this way. The ritual of life is almost divine in its universality, because death comes to embrace us all.
Except when death does not come. The scientific impossibility of it does not stop us dreamers, of course, but it does raise strange questions that may stop our longing in its tracks. What measure is a person who can’t die? How do we understand her history, her relationships, the uniqueness of her existence beyond the obvious conquering of the one great inevitable? How can you survive an immortal life, alone? And is a life without death truly worth it?
These lofty questions could form the basis of an entirely new religion. In the meantime, author Dara Horn has examined them with all the reverence and grace they deserve in literary form with the release of her latest novel Eternal Life.
In this novel, protagonist Rachel serves as our guiding light into the complicated realities of eternal life. As a young Jewish woman born in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, Rachel made a desperate vow to God to save her dying first child, trading her death for his life. She didn’t understand the implications of her sacrifice then, but 2,000 years trapped in the cycle of life certainly puts things into perspective. Every few decades she is reborn, gets married, has children, and then suffers through the painful process of watching her family live and love and die while she remains.
Nonlinear vignettes reveal the surreal, monotonous continuity of her long existence. Her families blend together and reappear in the lives of strangers and other relatives across the millennia. Important moments in human history are nothing more than circular sequences around similar instigations and consequences, the only minute difference between them often being when they result in her temporary death. However, Rachel’s beautifully complex feelings of attachment and anguish color each new version of her life with a unique flavor, which successfully quells the potential boredom that could arise from the reiteration of these moments.
Eternal Life does offer readers a few surprising interpersonal components, adding a touch of suspense to its heavily introspective plot. The first is Rachel’s ancient lover Elazar, the son of old Jerusalem’s high priest and the father of her first child. He sacrificed his death for their child as well, and now only wishes to spend his eternal life with her despite the centuries of pain and disappointments between them. The second surprise concerns Rachel’s latest family, a lineage of future-obsessed entrepreneurs who may have stumbled upon her secret, and who now want to crack God’s code to immortality through the modern miracles of science and technology.
When Rachel and Elazar are together, Horn paints a heartbreaking tableau that mixes loneliness and trauma with romantic love. To be caught up in one another would be to shun the rest of the world and protect themselves, but it would also mean they would stagnate together forever. For Rachel, this kind of relationship would thus rend her life meaningless as it is already void of the natural passage of time. So time and again, she turns to other lovers and creates new families, an investment in the future which she can see grow and develop as its creator. Yet, because Rachel is continuously prevented from seeing her families’ futures as “completed” due to her inability to die, Horn explores the merits of Rachel’s familial devotion and whether motherhood is even worth it in the grand scheme of the universe.
Considered separately, these elements elevate Eternal Life to one of the most groundbreaking examinations of human life I’ve read in a long time. Together in this novel, however, I’m not sure how I feel. Sometimes, I wanted more of that tragic, intimate love story. Other times, I would have preferred a more focused approach to the seriousness of Rachel’s endless family drama. Trying to juggle both plot points left this novel teetering on an uneven scale at times, just shy of the profound emotional devastation a plot like this should evoke. Regardless, the resulting clash of old world romance with new world responsibilities does provide a realistic look at the messiness of human relationships, as well as some much-appreciated humor. At one point, for example, Rachel’s granddaughter creates the trending hashtag #EternalLife on social media to start a conversation about her research into immortality. Elazar takes this opportunity to relentlessly troll Twitter with his relationship problems. (#EternalLife: “What do I have to do to get her to take me back? I saved her kids from the Black Plague!”)
Ultimately, the strangest and most important relationship Horn’s novel tackles is the one between Rachel and God. Religion in Eternal Life is an intangible, omnipresent force, an intrinsically organic part of all things rather than a ritualistic external performance among peers. The Judaic teachings of her ancestors follow Rachel despite every rebirth, and she cannot help but impart this worldview to generations of her children. Even when Rachel questions her belief in His nature–when humanity’s purpose under Him seems pointless, when His treatment of her seems cruel, when being alive for so long makes her wonder if she even is a human in the eyes of God–she never questions His presence in her life.
And in turn, readers cannot question the importance of Rachel in the history of Judaism either. She has been alive since the religion’s birth, and every major event that has affected the Jewish people also affected her, Elazar, or their respective descendants throughout the centuries. It might seem a bit too convenient to ascribe so much importance to her existence, but through this connection, Eternal Life firmly establishes the deep generational ties of faith and history. It is also important for readers to see how Judaism evolves through Rachel and her interactions with the gentile world. Her life is one long Midrash through history, revealing the experiential truths of humanity that lie just between the lines of our great religious texts. Rachel endures it all, from violent Roman oppression to modern day religious casualness, and thus, through a fictional proxy, Judaism endures as well. Eternal Life shines brightest for its powerful depiction of Jewish identity and tradition, and this novel serves as a righteous addition to the modern literary canon.
I leave the engrossing haze of Eternal Life with a few thoughts. For one, it definitely makes me want to brush up on my somewhat neglected Bible studies. For another, I feel a little less restless in my mortal coil. Nestled just behind its darker moments, Eternal Life is a surprisingly hopeful novel. Whether or not anything changes for Rachel is a resolution I don’t want to spoil, but I feel satisfied with all the emotional twists and turns that brought me here.
It feels a little silly to admit, but because of this novel, I’m rather excited for what the painful, overwhelming, uncertain future may hold for me. I mean, that’s just life, right? That’s what makes us human.