Book Review: Eternal Life

It’s hard to think of an author who more skillfully blends secular and religious themes than Dara Horn. Since the 2002 publication of her first novel, In the Image, she has emerged as one of the most important Jewish literary voices of the 21st century. Her stories often intertwine narratives from multiple time periods and involve historical figures and notable events. Her first novel since 2013, Eternal Life, takes its? time jumping into the realm of immortality novels.

Eternal Life is the story of Rachel, a contemporary of Hillel the Elder, circa 80 B.C.E. Well educated for a girl of that era, Rachel serves her father, a scribe, as a messenger to and from the Temple priests in Jerusalem. Her wit and interpretations of the Torah attract the attention of Elazar, son of the high priest. Their subsequent love affair, which continues after Rachel marries a scholar named Zakkai, begets a son, whose illness Rachel interprets as punishment. To save his grandson’s life, Elazar’s father conducts a ritual that condemns Elazar and Rachel to eternal life. Only through immolation can they end their lives.

Like characters in a video game, Elazar and Rachel go through endless regenerations, reborn again as 16-year-olds in a new part of the world. They try to avoid each other they don’t reconnect, but are irresistibly drawn together by passion and a need to speak about their shared curse.

In Rachel’s 21st century incarnation, she’s the mother of two – a middle-aged wastrel son and a brilliant biochemist daughter. Through a quirk of fate, her daughter is researching longevity and believes she may have unlocked the secret to eternal life. Rachel sees the opposite possibility; if her daughter can prevent death, perhaps she can find the biological reason for her inability to die and help her finally to do so.

What follows is an intricate exploration of Rachel’s reasons for being alive. With each life, each marriage, and each child, she experiences glimmers of hope for the future, as well as the mundane and repetitive aspects of life. Despite the heartbreak of repeated loss and the ennui she feels as she repeats the cycle of attraction, marriage, reproduction and the death of loved ones, she continues to create new life to influence the world through her progeny.

Horn’s universal protagonist can navigate ancient Judea, contemporary New York, and many eras and places in between. She’s progressive for her time, and, at least for the first few centuries, deeply and passionately Jewish. She reflects on how her love of God, whom she knows to exist as evidenced by her own immortality, has changed through the millennia. She once believed in the commandment: “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” But too often, that love seemed “sadomasochistic: seductive, cruel, and irresistible.”

Rachel’s worldliness – and world-weariness – brings a wryness to Horn’s prose, which otherwise could have slipped into sentimentality. As the narrative jumps from the present to past loves and losses, we are invited to experience every moment of life as she does: in its full truth. Rachel seeks solace through human connection, which propels her forward, again and again.

As mortals, each of us experiences the waning of the miraculous into the mundane, and as we do, we seek reasons to carry on. Dara Horn’s addition to the trope of immortality novels, which will be enjoyed alongside classics like Tuck Everlasting, is a reminder that through our actions and our progeny, we have the potential, in tiny steps, to bring healing to our lives and to the world.

Courtney Naliboff lives, writes, teaches, and parents on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine. She is a columnist for Working Waterfront, and writes about rural Jewish parenting for