The Immortalists. By Chloe Benjamin. Putnam; 346 pages; $26. Tinder Press; £16.99.

SOME novels are portraits, some are page-turning puzzles. Still others are meditations on the mysteries of life. “The Immortalists”, a family story with a twist, is a bit of all of those. The tale of four siblings marked in childhood by a terrible prophecy, it careers through time and tragedy with the reader in tow, as deft and dizzying as a high-wire act.

Chloe Benjamin, an American writer, sets out a startling premise: what if you were told the date of your own death? Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon Gold, four siblings in a Jewish immigrant family, visit a fortune-teller in 1969 on the Lower East Side of New York. From the moment each is told when his or her life will end, they are irrevocably altered. Suspense mounts as the reader learns each character’s fate in individual portraits, starting with the youngest. What links them beyond the irrational power of the long-ago prophecy is the deeper question that it raises: what role does belief—or luck or destiny or even magic—play in shaping a life?

Ms Benjamin cannily withholds information, leaving readers eager to see how each new story tops the last. The four lives span a wide range of settings and themes. The youngest, Simon, races through the sexual hedonism of San Francisco’s gay scene in the late 1980s. Klara is a magician whose life is spent perfecting an act she will perform in Las Vegas. Daniel, a doctor, faces loss on many levels in upstate New York, while Varya is a scientist researching longevity in a primate lab.

Juggling so many pieces has its risks. The rapid-fire plot at times feels rushed and contrived. The portrayal of the AIDS epidemic is predictable, while some of the other developments seem wildly improbable. Yet, as the novel deepens, the reader is beguiled with unexpected twists and stylish, crisp prose. In a novel centred on magic and mystery, Ms Benjamin uses misdirection to frustrate as well as entertain. Meanwhile, the mystery of the human mind that is the novel’s true subject lingers long after the riddles are solved. Information can implant itself like a virus, the older Gold children note. Whether true or false, genuine or placebo, Varya knew “stories did have the power to change things: the past and the future, even the present.” Unwittingly, this ambitious, unorthodox tale may change you too.