Cheating death is most frequently a quest for conquistadors or comic book villains. And most characters that have attained immortality, or something close to it, are already fantastical beings of some sort. Two new works of literary fiction, however, investigate what a drastically elongated lifespan can do to a soul and mind intended for mortality.
A good portion of Eternal Life by Dara Horn takes place in the present day, as the approximately 2,000-year-old Rachel wishes for some way to break the cycle of marriage, motherhood and faking her death to ensure that no one discovers her immortality. When she gave up her death in order to save her young son’s life, she didn’t truly believe she would live forever. It wasn’t until the biblical Temple of Jerusalem burned down with the elderly Rachel inside and she woke up outside the city, young once more, that she realized what she had done.
Rachel loves her children and descendants deeply, but time has taken its toll on motherhood. Horn uses flashes of memory to show how, to Rachel, each child is reminiscent of another one, and at times another before that. Rachel’s living family will always remind her of those who are dead, dooming her to continually acknowledge her own separation from the rest of humanity. Horn never answers whether Rachel’s embrace of perpetual motherhood, despite the pain, is true conviction, self-punishment or both. Her heroine does not stop to consider it, unless forced to by the one person who understands her plight—the father of the child she gave up her death to save.
Her lover, Elazar, made the same bargain she did and has been following Rachel ever since, convinced that their immortality is a gift from God and a sign that they were meant to spend eternity together. In expertly executed flashbacks, Horn methodically uncovers a connection between two souls that never quite fit in with their surroundings. Rachel’s guilt and persistent love for Elazar are among the many parts of herself she has attempted to bury via unceasing motherhood, causing damage to herself and her children. In unflinching emotional detail, Horn explores how Rachel has allowed herself to calcify into a cycle, and by the end of Eternal Life, she faces a choice between jettisoning it altogether or embracing it fully, pain and all.
Rachel may refuse to contemplate the enormity of her lifespan, but Tom Hazard is drowning in it. The protagonist of Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time is only 439 years old in comparison to Rachel’s millennia, but the majority of those years have been spent alone. Haig’s greatest accomplishment in this book is his at-times unbearably poignant exploration of how such a life could warp a mind.
Tom is haunted by the impermanence of the world around him and paralyzed by the knowledge that everyone he encounters will one day be dead. Having come of age in the 16th century, he knows all too well the horrors that can await those like him, and refuses to believe that humanity has changed in the ensuing centuries. Yet the memories of his relationship with his wife, and the few close friendships he has enjoyed, have not faded with time, which leads to a sense of jumbled memories that Haig skillfully communicates by skipping backward and forward between Tom’s early life, his experiences in the present day and other moments throughout his centuries. Haig structures these moments like a slow-motion epiphany, following Tom as he attempts to process his worst experiences and possibly seize a chance at community and love in the present.
Haig begins with the losses so devastating that they cast a shadow over Tom’s psyche for centuries, reverberating louder than any of his other memories. But then Haig pulls back, showing the happiness and friendships that have also marked his protagonist’s life, disrupting the isolationist narrative that Tom and others like him have forced themselves to adhere to in order to survive. Along the way, Haig allows for plenty of wistful and witty commentary on eras past, pit stops in the Wild West and 1920s Paris, and perhaps the best fictional depiction of Shakespeare in recent memory.
Like Rachel in Eternal Life, Tom arrives at a point in which he must break or solidify the rhythm of his life, and the final chapters of How to Stop Time arrive with breathtaking catharsis. For all his skill at evoking the passage of centuries, Haig also lavishes his attention on singular moments, mere minutes in the enormity of time that gently nudge his protagonist towards enlightenment.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Matt Haig for How to Stop Time.