Dara Horn’s Eternal Life is a strange tale, rich with mystery and full of questions. In her novel, Horn tells the story of a Jewish girl, Rachel, who forfeited her death in order to save her baby boy. She has lived that sacrifice for two thousand years.
Eternal Life begins in the modern day, but weaves back and forth throughout time, affording glimpses of Rachel’s history (and that of the Jewish people) from the last two millennia. Rachel’s story asks piercing questions about the meaning of life and death and what gives life its purpose. If life could really last forever, would it make a difference? Would it be wonderful? Or horrible? How do we make our lives count in the limited time that we’re given?
Rachel, deeply alone in so many ways, shares her tortured immortality with one other person–Elazar, the father of her child whose life she saved. But Elazar’s presence in her life always results in pain and ruin, so for two thousand years, she has longed for him and fled from him in terror. But when you live forever, you inevitably repeat your mistakes time and time again. Can anything give Rachel the purpose and peace she desperately seeks?
Dara Horn’s stories are vaguely unsettling at best, and philosophically disturbing at worst, yet I am irresistibly drawn to each and every one of them. Horn’s gorgeous story-telling is redolent with obvious symbolism and gorgeous imagery. Her settings and characters capture the beauty and sorrow of Jewish culture and history. Her stories are strange and mysterious, but uniquely captivating.
Rachel’s story is especially unsettling. The idea of eternal life as Rachel has experienced it is horrifying. Never being at peace, always running from discovery, watching husband after husband die, and standing helplessly by as child after child is destroyed by war, famine, or age…it sounds like eternal death.
Life can never change for Rachel. She can never grow, not really. Life is an endless cycle of pain, regret, and repeating the same devastating mistakes.
Yet somehow, there is hope. The birth of each child brings Rachel joy, even though she knows the pain they will endure. She finds love time and time again, even though she always ends up alone when that lover or husband succumbs to the grave. Somehow, eventually, Rachel seems to find some measure of peace in her fate, even though it’s not the final rest she longs for.
Eternal Life asks difficult, haunting questions about the meaning of life and where we find our happiness. As usual, Horn is careful not to give answers in her novel, but leaves her readers grappling with those difficulties long after they close the pages of her book. This, if nothing else, makes Eternal Life a book worth reading.