During the summer of 1969, four siblings hear of a curious fortune teller who can predict the day you die. Pooling their pocket money and eager for a cure to the monotony of the long summer, they seek her out, entering her cramped and crowded apartment one by one. Simon, the youngest, enters first, followed wild-haired Klara, sensible Daniel, and finally the eldest, Varya, nervously follows her siblings. They come out the other side forever changed by what they heard. Over the next five decades, the fortunes they were told shape each of the siblings’ lives, pushing the power of their familial bond to the limit.
The power of words. They weaseled under door crevices and through keyholes.
They hooked into invididuals and wormed through generations.
The crux of my indecisiveness about this book lies in its structure. The novel begins with a prologue that recounts the siblings’ visit the mystic woman and the discovering of their ‘death days’. Instantly, each of the siblings were distinct characters to me. Even in just a few pages, they felt vivid and real, as did the relationships between each of them. They were different enough feel authentic but similar enough that they still seemed like siblings.
The remainder of the book is separated into four parts, and like the visit to the fortune teller, the siblings appear in age order, youngest first. It begins with Simon’s story, which covers the years 1978 – 1982, then moves to Klara in 1982 until 1991. The years 1991 to 2000 are made up of Daniel’s story then, following a gap of six years, we’re reunited with Varya for the years 2006 – 2010.
This structure meant that I got to know each sibling intimately, and in the cases of Simon and Klara, their sections covered the most significant parts of their lives. I really enjoyed Simon’s account of gay life in San Francisco’s Castro. A lot of the queer stories I’ve read set in this time period takes place in New York so it was interesting to see the seventies queer scene of different city. His chapters didn’t shy away from his sexuality and his expression of it, but it wasn’t salacious either. His relationship with Klara was really touching and it set up Klara’s chapters well. Klara flees to San Francisco with Simon to become a magician, which I thought it was an interesting choice and I understand the author’s wish to explore this male-dominated culture from a woman’s perspective but I struggled to engage with this aspect of Klara’s chapters. I simply don’t care about magic, at all, and so I found the accounts of different tricks and illusions a little boring after a while.
Daniel’s was the least engaging of the siblings, and is in fact the shortest of all three sections, with only seven chapters to his siblings’ nine. It was a bit of a contradiction for me: I wasn’t very interested in his character – I was more interested in the siblings’ mother, Gertie, than I was Daniel. His story is a little boring until the end of his chapter when suddenly the narrative reaches a huge climax and then… deflates. There’s this enormously tense scene which ends Daniel’s part of the story and then it’s barely spoken of again, and we’re quickly ushered into Varya’s later life. It seemed a little anticlimactic. By the time I got to Varya I felt a touch disconnected from her, having missed the majority of her interesting life – she spends her career studying ageing and searching for ways to increase the human lifespan – but we learn about most of her life in retrospect rather than living it alongside her. After Daniel’s chapter, Varya’s fell flat for me. We’d barely seen anything of her for three-quarters of the book. I just struggled to care about her story at this point, which is a shame because she had the potential to be the most interesting character for me.
If you take each of the siblings’ stories individually, they’re fantastic, but put together they give the novel wobbly pacing and a mediocre ending. Overall, it was an enjoyable read, but ultimately forgettable.
Rating: 3 / 5 stars
Read for the NEWTs Magical Readathon. Class: Charms. Grade: A.