The Live-Forever Machine


223 pages
ISBN 1-55074-010-5
DDC jC813'.54





Reviewed by Leslie Aitken

Leslie Aitken is Collection Development Librarian in the Herbert T.
Coutts Library at the University of Alberta.


Realism and fantasy run parallel in this young-adult novel. Oppel
explores a failing relationship between the protagonist, Eric Sheppard,
and his father—who has continued for 13 years to grieve the suicide of
Eric’s mother. Imploring Eric to “hold onto the past . . . with all
your strength,” the elder Sheppard reduced his interactions with his
son to frequent museum trips and endless quizzing about historical

Via the museum, Eric enters a fantasy world. He encounters
1600-year-old Alexander, keeper of the secret of immortality (the
live-forever machine) and archenemy of Coil, a fellow immortal bent on
the destruction of history.

Like Eric’s father, Alexander is obsessed with the past; unlike
Eric’s father, Alexander is manipulative, thieving, cowardly, and
brutal—scarcely a moral alternative to Coil. Herein lies a serious
flaw in the fantasy. Because of Alexander’s failings, the distinction
between the forces of good and evil blurs. “There are certain rituals
that must be observed, incantations read. . . . The person must immerse
himself in deep water and drown.”

Unhappily, moments that should be suspenseful become quizzical because
of unfortunate word choices: “‘Please continue to evacuate in an
orderly fashion,’ the woman instructed them.”

All this adds up to a weak narrative. What is weak at the narrative
level is weak at the psychological level, too. Alexander cannot be
perceived as the parental surrogate Eric craves. The boy recognizes that
he is being used. He further realizes that he will have difficulty
relating his adventure to his father. He finally decides that he can
tell his father about the underground inhabitants of the storm sewers
because “they saved up the old things so they could make new things
out of them.”

Help with building a future from the past is exactly what Eric’s
father needs, but whether Eric needs the fantasy adventure to achieve
this insight is not clear.

Oppel has attempted something worthwhile: the psychological exploration
of a family tragedy by means of a fantasy. The outcome, however, is not
completely successful. The parallel tales almost, but not quite,


Oppel, Kenneth., “The Live-Forever Machine,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,