Rachel, Ever­last­ing

In Dara Horn’s su­per­nat­u­ral novel, a woman faces a unique prob­lem — an in­abil­ity to die.

Forward Magazine - - Re­views - By Ju­lia M. Klein

ETER­NAL LIFE: A NOVEL

By Dara Horn W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, 256 pages, $25.95

Grow­ing older, we wres­tle with the brevity of life, the paucity of our ac­com­plish­ments, the im­pos­si­ble de­sire for more time. Be­set by nos­tal­gia or re­gret, we may yearn for the chance to re­visit our youth armed with mid­dleaged wis­dom. In her lat­est novel, Dara Horn says, in ef­fect, be care­ful what you wish for.

Rachel, her pro­tag­o­nist, has a prob­lem none of us share: Thanks to a des­per­ate vow she once made, she can’t seem to die — even when the prospect seems down­right se­duc­tive. In­stead, she is obliged to segue from ex­is­tence to ex­is­tence, from coun­try to coun­try, through centuries and mil­len­nia. In each life, she mar­ries, has chil­dren, watches them grow up, some­times watches them die. Then, when it seems time, she leaves,

As a philo­soph­i­cal novel, ‘Eter­nal Life’ asks the most fun­da­men­tal ques­tions.

only to start all over again, re­tain­ing her mem­o­ries but lit­tle else.

Rachel’s (al­most) unique fate makes her des­per­ately lonely. Her only balm (or is it an­other curse?) is that she is shad­owed through her many in­car­na­tions by a man who is sim­i­larly im­mor­tal and wants only to spend eter­nity with her. This is the premise of “Eter­nal Life”

— a su­per­nat­u­ral fan­tasy, a work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion and, above all, a philo­soph­i­cal novel. Provoca­tive and deeply mov­ing in spots, it is never en­tirely con­vinc­ing, even on its own fan­tas­ti­cal terms.

Horn, a two-time Na­tional Jewish Book Award win­ner, is an el­e­gant writer. She knows how to draw in readers, to move smoothly be­tween past and present, to cre­ate char­ac­ters that in­spire sym­pa­thy. But on the level of plot, “Eter­nal Life” has a few too many con­trivances, and re­quires too great a sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief.

Liv­ing in Jerusalem un­der Ro­man rule, Rachel, the daugh­ter of a scribe, is im­preg­nated by her lover, Elazar, son of the high priest. (Their early meet­ings, in a tun­nel filled with wa­ter, set the pat­tern of their en­coun­ters.) Mean­while, she has mar­ried Zakkai, a dully vir­tu­ous man who re­pels her.

Zakkai be­lieves their first-born, Yochanan, to be his. (Yochanan is based on the first-cen­tury Jewish sage.) The boy mys­te­ri­ously gets ill and seems des­tined to die. Un­der the high priest’s guid­ance, Rachel and Elazar per­form a se­ries of rit­ual sacri­fices — and, fi­nally, ex­change their deaths for their son’s life. And that’s where the real trou­ble be­gins.

Though Rachel can’t die, she also can’t linger over­long in any one life. For one thing, dis­cov­er­ing the se­cret of her im­mor­tal­ity may be fa­tal to her off­spring. But to es­cape from one ex­is­tence to the next, she must en­dure be­ing burned alive. Rather than killing her, the flames trans­port her to some new lo­ca­tion, and trans­form her, un­scathed, into an 18-year-old girl.

It is not en­tirely clear to what ex­tent Rachel ages — surely enough to de­fray sus­pi­cion. Her genes, we learn from her sci­en­tist grand­daugh­ter, Hannah, are cu­ri­ous: Their lack of de­te­ri­o­ra­tion is equiv­a­lent to a teenager’s. Yet she wrin­kles and loses the lus­ter of youth, while re­main­ing im­mune from plague and star­va­tion. And if a car hit her? Pre­sum­ably she would just walk away.

Horn’s fan­tasy uni­verse — a mostly re­al­is­tic one im­bued with fan­tasy el­e­ments — isn’t en­tirely con­vinc­ing. Then, too, there is the emo­tional prob­lem of Elazar. As we quickly learn, he be­trayed Rachel early in their re­la­tion­ship, and a mar­riage be­tween them, three centuries later, proved ster­ile. The at­trac­tion en­dures, but so does her anger. Shouldn’t she have for­given him by now? Don’t they, in fact, be­long to­gether, as he in­sists?

What­ever the novel’s weak­nesses, Horn does man­age to en­mesh us in Rachel’s psy­chic tor­ments — the melan­cholic fall­out of sur­viv­ing so many loved ones, of be­ing buf­feted by his­tory without the hope of an end­ing.

When we first meet Rachel, in the present, she is re­luc­tant to aban­don her fam­ily, de­spite warn­ings from Elazar, who dou­bles as a glo­ri­fied travel agent and han­dler. “[T]his was the long­est she had stayed any­where, and these were the old­est grand­chil­dren she had ever dared to know,” we’re told. But she’s im­mo­bi­lized by worry about her founder­ing fam­ily busi­ness and her grown son, Rocky, whose ca­reer path “was lit­tered with failed apps, un­der­funded web­sites, com­puter chip vari­ants that vi­o­lated some ob­scure patent….”

As the nar­ra­tive jumps around in time, Horn fills in the his­tory and con­tours of Rachel’s dilemma. One twist is that, in the mod­ern world, dis­ap­pear­ing en­tirely into a new life has be­come a big­ger chal­lenge. Meirav, a woman who has be­friended Rocky, tells Rachel that Rocky is work­ing on a “hack-proof way of cre­at­ing a per­ma­nent dig­i­tal record.” But is this some­thing to be de­sired or to be feared? (Sim­i­lar con­cerns about the on­line uni­verse and the power of record­keep­ing in­formed Horn’s last novel, “A Guide for the Per­plexed.”)

As a philo­soph­i­cal novel, “Eter­nal Life” asks the most fun­da­men­tal of ques­tions: What makes life mean­ing­ful? Is its tra­di­tional arc, from birth through fam­ily for­ma­tion to death, nec­es­sary? Is it a bless­ing that we in­suf­fi­ciently ap­pre­ci­ate? What role does re­li­gious faith play? Is there any­thing more sa­cred than ma­ter­nal love?

The wis­dom Rachel has ac­quired over the centuries is mod­est — just “fleet­ing, in­cre­men­tal” rev­e­la­tions, a sense “that the cur­tain of daily life it­self was holy, that be­hind it was only a void.” Horn leaves us with a coun­ter­fac­tual claim that can nev­er­the­less point us for­ward: “The hard part isn’t liv­ing for­ever…. It’s mak­ing life worth liv­ing.”

Ju­lia M. Klein, the For­ward’s con­tribut­ing book critic, was a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle’s Nona Balakian Ci­ta­tion for Ex­cel­lence in Re­view­ing. Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @ Ju­li­aMKlein

MICHAEL B. PRIEST

HORN OF PLENTY: Dara Horn is a two-time Na­tional Jewish Book Award nom­i­nee.

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