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Eternal Life2Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
Even if Dara Horn weren’t coming here in less than three months as a special guest lecturer at the Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Synagogue, you would be in for a major treat if you were to sit down for a spell to read her latest novel, Eternal Life.

And, when I say “spell” – I mean it in the otherworldly sense. As one might anticipate from the title alone, this is a novel that dares to take on some very challenging themes, especially how alluring would it be to live forever?
Now, lest you think this is a story laced with witchcraft and magic potions, while it certainly qualifies as an exercise in magic realism, it has nothing to do with the kind of immortality that one usually associates with vampires or zombies. Instead it asks the reader to imagine what it would truly be like not to be able to die. And, rather than having the major character, Rachel, lead a life where she never ages – she ages, over and over again, but she is always reborn at the very instant when she should be dead.
Not only is the premise of the novel fascinating, Horn combines a richly imagined storyline with some impressive research – particularly about life in ancient Jerusalem shortly before its destruction at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. In addition to providing some fascinating details about the central role that the Temple played in the lives of Jerusalemites, Horn is also able to leap into some very contemporary subjects which are sometimes so current that one might feel a little bit sheepish for not being quite fully aware of what cryptocurrency algorithms and bitcoin mining are all about – for instance.
Finally, although it’s introduced only toward the end of the book, Horn also delves into genetic engineering and the crucial role that telomeres play in determining how long we live. I dropped references to those specifically modern notions simply to impress upon you that Eternal Life is no fluffy and romantic imagining of what it would be like to travel through time – which is often the subject for other novels and movies or TV programs.
At the same though, this novel is definitely written from a woman’s perspective. When we first meet Rachel, she is a tired woman in her 80s, living in the New York City area, saddled with a 54-year-old son who has been forced to return to living with his mother as a result of one more failed marriage and a business venture gone bad. Rather than setting out to explain how Rachel has arrived at her current circumstances, however, Horn takes her time setting events in motion. You might be forgiven for wondering just when it is that you’re going to find out where the name Eternal Life comes from?
But, as the book suddenly takes you back in time to ancient Jerusalem, the story of Rachel’s early years serving as an assistant to her scribe father, Ezra, becomes so compelling that the earlier part of the narrative begins to make more sense. Rachel meets – and falls in love with Elazar, the priest son of the Temple’s High Priest, Hanania. Unfortunately for Rachel, she is forced to marry someone else – Zakai, although she has become pregnant by Elazar. (Quite the potboiler at this point!)
The son that she bears, Yohanan, becomes fatally ill. In order to save his life though, Rachel makes a pact with Hanania that will see Yohanan cured by God in return for Rachel – and Ezra, living forever. Rather than seeking eternal life though, Rachel dismisses the notion that she will never die as nothing to be taken seriously.
At this point in the novel I was somewhat afraid that what would follow next would be a long series of chapters detailing Rachel’s life through the centuries – but that was not the case at all. Certainly there are references to some aspects of her different lives led over the years – and there is a recurrent theme of women’s servitude, but the story primarily involves switching back and forth from contemporary times to Jerusalem 70 CE without digressing into descriptions of life in other periods.
We begin to understand the ennui that has set in so long before in Rachel’s many lives, as she has been forced to witness the countless deaths of her many husbands – and offspring. The notion that one will outlive one’s children becomes unbearable for her – and raises some very lofty philosophical points to ponder. At a time when life spans have increased considerably, one might well ask: At what cost?
As I noted, there is a strongly feminist current pervading this book. At one point Rachel is shocked to find out that her granddaughter’s very modern husband shares in all the child-rearing duties, including vacuuming, noting that men never lowered themselves to clean out the ashes from the hearth in all her previous centuries of living. (Hey, I do that at home – although my wife is much more expert at starting the fire in the fireplace – must be a throwback to a previous life.)
While – as you can no doubt see from what I’ve just written, Horn can be wryly amusing in her writing, on the whole Eternal Life is a very serious treatment of a subject which can be terribly frightening: death. Further, while all the major characters are Jewish (and I wondered throughout reading this novel: Wouldn’t it have been likely at some point that Rachel would end up with someone who isn’t Jewish?), I wouldn’t say that there’s a particularly religious overtone to the story. In fact, one of the most fascinating scenes in the book has to do with an argument over whether there is much of a distinction between the Jewish sage Hillel’s admonition that the entire Torah can be summed up in one line: “Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you” and Jesus’s “Golden Rule”: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” (By the way, Jesus is not referred to by name in the novel. He is simply described as one among several “wonderworkers” who were alive around the time that the Romans ruled ancient Judea.)
A lot of ideas to grapple with – and ones that I’m sure people will want to ask Dara Horn about when she’s here on May 6. One final note: I was able to persuade Roberta Malam, who is the organizer of the Rady JCC – Jewish Post & News “People of the Book” Club, to add Eternal Life as the final selection of the club – shortly before Dara Horn will be here. That meeting will take place April 25th at the Asper Campus. You have plenty of time to obtain a copy of Eternal Life before then – and to come out to what is sure to be a lively discussion of a brilliant novel.

Eternal Life
By Dara Horn
W. W. Norton & Co.
256 pages
Published January 2018

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