Book Review: Dying to Live
Reviewed by Andrea Marks-Joseph
An elderly scientist wakes up as a baby in this endlessly captivating supernatural tale
Dying to Live is everything a good speculative novel should be: sublime escapism, constantly surprising, and a real pleasure to read.
Esther is a well-respected Nobel Laureate aging in a nursing home when she closes her eyes. When she opens them, she is a new-born baby. It takes a moment for her to understand what has happened—we don’t know why or how— but she has all her memories, skills, and personality intact.
The premise is absurd and intriguing, and readerly curiosity continues all the way through the novel: “Now how on earth is this gonna play out?” The wonder, fun, and daring spirit of Dying to Live triumphs.
The story spans decades of Esther’s reincarnated life as a child named Esme. We meet her at the moment of her simultaneous birth/death, and the novel is her life story until Esme dies in her eighties.
At the age of four, Esme enrolls at the Montreux Institute for the Gifted and Talented, where she meets young people of all ages and nationalities with other mystifying brilliant skills—both intellectual and potentially supernatural. The school offers the opportunity for students to participate in their preferred research projects while making use of their extraordinary abilities to benefit society. Here, Esme witnesses a student cure various serious ailments, observes a student conclude a police search for missing children, and joins a teenager in solving a math problem that perplexes rocket scientists.
As Esme discovers more about this impressive school and engages with its unique students, the story becomes less about how this happened to her and more about joining the adventures that their talents have steered them into. Along the way, Esme begins to experience an electrical current emanating from each student when they’re using their powers in her presence, and that opens up another avenue to her research.
Through her retained life experience, Esme has the agency and confidence to act as an advocate for the genuinely young students (though she’s physically much younger than them) as they interact with adults in professional settings. It’s heartwarming to see her defend and campaign for the wellbeing and support of her fellow students as they face these highly peculiar and complex situations. Things get increasingly complicated and tense for them when one of the students with psychokinetic abilities is recruited to join the army.
The author (Barbara Reyelts) succeeds at conveying interpersonal relationships with nuance and relatability: The warm and welcoming intimacy of the family connection between reborn Esther and her astounded parents in this strange moment is wonderful. The support and sacrifice they offer each other with love is surprising and often quite tender. The sense of community between the students at the gifted school is strong and practical; it’s clear they’re all committed to learning from each other and enriching their research.
This camaraderie of young people in highly unusual situations working together to complete challenges, in addition to the found family through living together at their school, plays such a large role in the novel that Dying to Live will appeal greatly to readers of Young Adult fantasy and sci-fi novels, particularly those about gifted children, which often feature the same aspects.
Esme’s wild and spectacular life story is a remarkably easy read and a smooth journey to embark on. Readers are immediately and comfortably in the mind of Esther, then Esme, alongside the students at the school. Reyelts conveys issues of logistics, emotions, and morality with an equal, natural ease that makes the novel a pleasure. The writing style would be appropriate for readers young and old, though it’s worth noting that it often deals with difficult questions of ethics and emotional intelligence.
Readers should be aware that the institute’s escapades include: child abduction, kidnapping during a violent terrorist attack, a residential building fire, human rights abuses by the military through exploitative medical testing, institutional neglect of students, and extensive research and treatment of cancer. Characters find themselves in various catastrophic, near-fatal circumstances, though there is hope in resolution.
Another complex, potentially troubling subject is that when she is sixteen years old, Esme is in a romantic relationship with a 22-year-old. Of course there is the fact of her emotional and intellectual reincarnated age, and it is handled with considerate politeness, but readers could find issue with it. Through their relationship, and eventual marriage after she turns eighteen—and a beautiful wedding to which guests arrive from all over the world—the couple builds on the institute’s legacy and quite poetically, become part of its history.
Dying to Live is every bit as entertaining as I hoped it would be—a story rich with hope, kindness, impressive scientific research, and insightful, poignant commentary on the human spirit. The book’s closing line—Esme’s final words on her death bed—are an absolute delight which will leave you with a smile on your face.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy / Supernatural
Print Length: 240 pages
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