Book Review: Suicide Club by Rachel Heng
One of the downsides of my work as an editor (the only downside—my job is very cool) is that it can be hard to switch off my work-brain and enjoy a book without critiquing the edit. This is why it’s such a pleasure to pick up a novel that grips me from the start and leaves any impulse to analyse comma usage far behind. Rachel Heng has written such a novel.
From the first paragraph of Suicide Club you know you’re in the safe hands of a master craftswoman, which makes it all the more impressive that this is her debut novel! I would not have picked it as a first book. The craft behind the writing is so accomplished it feels effortless. The prose is deceptively simple, but Suicide Club is the type of book you will continually pause while reading, to reflect on the depth of the ideas.
The story is set in a near-future New York where people live an average of 300 years and the expectation is that a long life is desired by all. Genetics are used to determine at birth who is worthy of access to the technology of longevity, but receiving the medical and scientific intervention that will prolong your life comes with a catch—your behaviour is subject to constant monitoring for the remainder of your existence. Daily exercise, eating only nutrient-rich formulas, avoiding overstimulation in the form of most music and entertainment—all of these are necessary to ensure you don’t lose your privileges and face your own mortality.
In this speculative future life is extended at the cost of what makes life worth living and suicide become an act of rebellion and defiance.
Whilst this isn’t a feminist novel per se, the majority of the protagonists are women and, as always, it’s refreshing to read a book full of complex and interesting female characters whose lives aren’t defined by a romantic relationship with a man.
The book follows the lives of two women whose paths are destined to cross. Lea is a perfect candidate for inclusion in the upcoming ‘third wave,’ the first humans to be made immortal. Until a small act of carelessness has her in trouble with the authorities and starting to question the very core of her beliefs.
Anja spends her time sitting at her mother’s bedside, watching the person she loves most in the world withering away but unable to die. The mechanical heart continues to beat though there is nothing left of the woman she once knew. Her increasing desperation and hopelessness lead Anja to take extreme action to prevent others from suffering as she does.
Suicide Club manages to be both well-paced and thoughtful. It’s engaging and character-driven while also posing big questions about the inherent value of simply living. Is a life filled with pleasure and joy, no matter how short, preferable to regimented immortality?
If you like speculative fiction, strong female characters, Science Fiction, human drama or a good old-fashioned character-driven read: this is the book for you. I don’t want to oversell it, but Heng is an author to watch. You read it here first!