Over the early January days I spent reading Dara Horn’s new novel “Eternal Life” (Norton), I made four shiva visits. The words of comfort spoken by South African friends to one of those grieving, “You should have long life,” had new meaning as Horn’s tale unfolded.
The novel opens in contemporary New York, and the main character Rachel, now an 84-year-old grandmother, cannot die. For 20 centuries, since her childhood in first-century Jerusalem, she has moved around the world, experienced major events of Jewish history including the destruction of the Temple, the Inquisition and the Holocaust, and she has witnessed the deaths of her children and grandchildren. You can imagine her life in a series of framed photographs, with Rachel surrounded by loved ones, and if you look closely, she doesn’t really age. It’s as if she steps out of one frame and into another, from life not to death but to another life, another story.
Rachel is more than ready for her finale. But centuries ago she made a vow with God, giving up her ability to die in exchange for her first son’s life. In Horn’s creative enterprise, all this talk of death is life affirming. That death gives meaning to life has surely been explored before, but Horn upends convention.
The novel is a literary thriller, a love story, a work of magical realism or spiritual realism, a deeply Jewish tale — and it is laced with humor. Her lyrical sentences, sharp intellect and originality place her among the finest American Jewish novelists writing today. In an interview with The Jewish Week, Horn says that this, her fifth novel, is the most autobiographical book she has written.
A mother of four young children between the ages of 5 and 12, she says that her own life experience is one of repetition: She keeps going to kindergarten graduations, for example, and that gives her the sense of runnin g in place.
“Being a parent makes you think longitudinally about time, the way that Jewish tradition encourages you to think about time. It’s cyclical, going through everything over and over again,” she says.
A few years ago, when she was beginning to write the novel, she began noticing articles about Silicon Valley billionaires financing life-extension research for people trying to escape from death, and was intrigued, wondering why someone would want to live so long.
Time is something that has long intrigued Horn as a storyteller. As a child, she was troubled by the onward movement of time, how when a day disappeared, it was gone forever. She was motivated to write by her desire to stop time, to hold onto fleeting moments. As a very young writer, she kept journals and notebooks to record her observations. Later on, as she studied history, she took comfort in “the idea that things that happened in the past will happen again and continue to happen again.”
“Being a parent makes you think longitudinally about time, the way that Jewish tradition encourages you to think about time. It’s cyclical, going through everything over and over again.”
Horn, now 40, began publishing novels while in graduate school. Her first, “In The Image,” was published while she was studying Hebrew literature at Cambridge, and her second, “The World to Come,” was published as she was completing her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard. Those books and the two that followed, “All Other Nights” and “A Guide for the Perplexed,” have won many awards and accolades.
One of her goals in writing, as she has stated with all of her novels, is to write in English as though it were a Jewish language. Fluent in Yiddish and Hebrew, she includes literary allusions to those languages, their literature and styles. In “Eternal Life,” one “version” (as Rachel refers to the different episodes of her long life), sounds like the experience of 17th-century Jewish businesswoman and diarist Gluckel of Hameln. And then there’s Rachel’s 63rd son, who resembles Sholem Aleichem. As a child he wrote a rhymed alphabetical list of all the curses hurled at him and his brother and went on to write many books that made Rachel laugh.
A self-described “big nerd,” Horn does extensive research for her novels. The period details are drawn in part from Josephus’ account of the destruction of the Temple and Jacob Neusner’s biography of Yochanan Ben Zakkai.
Horn says that she has been interested in the Temple rituals since she was about 12 and began leyning the Yom Kippur Torah reading about the service of the High Priest with its details of blood and ash, and still chants it sometimes. Of the text she says, “It’s so distant from anything any of us experience. When you are leyning, it feels very personal, that these details are supposed to be very important and you think about why. It isn’t a metaphor, at least at the time it wasn’t considered a metaphor. It’s very, very physical, about intimate details.” Now, as a mother, she has come to see the relevance of physical detail, “that the small stuff does matter. The whole world is sustained by whether someone in this house is cooking dinner.”
Immortality won’t look the same again.
Her characters in “Eternal Life” include historical figures as well as made-up individuals, and Horn is skilled at mining their psychological and philosophical dimensions. Each world that they inhabit is wonderfully vivid and convincing. The undying plot is set in motion when Rachel, the daughter of a scribe, and Elazar, the son of the high priest, meet when she is delivering her father’s scrolls to the Temple. They later enjoy a secret rendezvous in a tunnel dug by King Hezekiah, 800 years earlier (Last summer, Horn climbed through the ancient tunnel with her family). When Rachel’s son Yochanan is deathly ill, Rachel and Elazar each make a vow with his father the high priest, and indeed the child is saved.
In those days, before the Temple was destroyed, Rachel describes the young Yochanan cleaning out the ashes from the oven: “Never before in her life had a male done a household chore for her; nor would it happen again for another two thousand years.”
The subsequent connection between Rachel and Elazar is a complicated one, as their paths separate, and they marry others and have many children, rarely revealing their long pasts. Elazar, who understands Rachel like no one else, pursues her over the centuries and manages to return to wherever she is.
The novel is a literary thriller, a love story, a work of magical realism or spiritual realism, a deeply Jewish tale — laced with humor.
Horn writes of Rachel, “She raised her children, all of them. She raised them, nurtured them, watched them move or hate or succeed or fail, gave each of them her private excesses of possibilities, observed, sometime from far, what they did with them, watched her own ideas wither or grow. Then she finally watched her children die and she was jealous.”
The narrative shifts from one era to another, back and forward in time, with new details layered in, much the way that memory works. Tunnels of joy and sadness reappear, as does fire. In one of the latest episodes in which the reader finds Rachel, she is living in the suburbs, with a 50-something unemployed son living in her basement and a married granddaughter — who reminds her so much of others she loved — doing medical research on life extension. But there’s another “version” to come.
Horn’s novel is a pleasure to read, so no spoilers here. Immortality won’t look the same again.
Dara Horn will be speaking about “Eternal Life” along with novelist Ruby Namdar, author of “The Ruined House,” in “Novel Ideas: A Conversation about Jewish Time, Language and Stories,” moderated by Jewish Week culture editor Sandee Brawarsky, on Monday, Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, Lower Manhattan, mjhnyc.org/novelideas.