Courting controversy, Emma Martin

The Suicide Club
Sarah Quigley
Vintage, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143771012

Midway through Sarah Quigley’s The Suicide Club, Lace, one of its three troubled young protagonists, recalls a story told to her by her father, a celebrated film-maker who, along with Lace’s mother and younger sister, died in horrifying circumstances when Lace was eight – a loss which she has learned to accommodate, but from which she has in no way recovered. In the story, a beautiful princess develops an allergy to sunlight, which leaves her crying salty tears that form small ponds around her. The allergy becomes progressively more extreme until she is unable to tolerate even artificial light, leaving her living in darkness with only a blind manservant for company.

Lace features in the novel as a similarly tragic character, arrestingly beautiful, but emotionally damaged. Her best friend, Gibby, a brilliant inventor by day and a newspaper delivery man by night, is secretly in love with her, and becomes obsessed with reversing what he alone recognises as a deterioration in her mental condition. Lace has become unable to sleep, she has hacked off her hair, and burned the precious photographs and clippings that reminded her of her family. Meanwhile, Gibby is contending with challenges of his own, including a gin-swilling, sports-obsessed mother, a boorish father, and an aural hypersensitivity that leaves him vulnerable, in George Eliot’s words, to “that roar which lies on the other side of silence”.

The third member of the novel’s central trio, Bright, literally crashes into Lace’s and Gibby’s lives when he attempts suicide by jumping from the 19th floor of an office building in the opening chapter. Bright is a literary sensation, overwhelmed by the public attention that has followed the publication of his first book. But the source of his despair can be traced further to his childhood, when he was abandoned by his missionary mother and left in the care of his severe and emotionally neglectful father. When the people who have featured in Bright’s life assemble, ghostlike, to witness his jump, his parents are not even paying attention: “‘Bye then!’ says Bright in a forced, casual voice.”

Bright’s leap is witnessed from a distance by Lace, who is at that moment fleeing through the city after a casual sexual encounter which has threatened to become too emotionally intimate. Seconds later, Bright’s fall is broken by Gibby’s newspaper trolley and, as a result, he sustains no injuries apart from a comically broken toe.

In the aftermath of this incident, our trio find themselves at The Palace, an exclusive retreat cum psychiatric hospital set up in a disused hotel in Bavaria. Bright has been sent here by his father, while an increasingly distraught Gibby has likewise managed to gain admission for Lace and himself. Here, Lace and Bright fall in love with fairy-tale swiftness, leaving Gibby torn between jealousy and a genuine wish for Lace to be happy. But, unlike in a fairy tale, love may not be enough to conquer all and, as their time at The Palace draws to a close, it becomes apparent that the fate of one of the trio hangs in the balance.

The Suicide Club is an audacious novel. Bright’s miraculous survival from his 19-storey plunge is only the first of several events which may test the reader’s credulity. But, at its best, Quigley’s writing has a vivid, kinetic brilliance which largely renders quest-ions of plausibility irrelevant. The present-tense narration is filmic and often dazzling, seamlessly traversing time and space. Sometimes, however, the tone borders on flippant, and the novel’s witticisms risk becoming forced. This is particularly so in the latter half of the novel, during our trio’s sojourn at The Palace, in which the central figure of Geoffrey – heralded as a renowned and unconventional doctor – is faintly underwhelming, and where, despite a cast of colourful supporting characters, the pace sometimes drags.

The novel is intentionally vague about its wider social and cultural setting: our protagonists hail from a nameless Northern English city and, though they seemingly inhabit an era 15 to 20 years in the past, this is evident only because mobile phones are just phones, internet cafés are still a thing, and small portable video cameras that can record candid footage are items of wonder.

This vagueness reflects our trio’s preoccupations: at 20, they are caught in a hinterland between adolescence and adulthood, functionally disconnected from the world around them, though in a phenomenological sense acutely attuned to it. There are extraordinary passages in which Gibby becomes overwhelmed as “the world creaks and shuffles, turning everlastingly on its axis”, or “a squirrel slithers up a tree, its heart beating loudly enough to shake the ground.” But it is not only Gibby who experiences the world with rare sensory intensity: Bright, standing on the ledge readying himself to jump, “can smell the tobacco-scent of leaves crumbling on branches, and the sweetness of oil lying like dark coins under the lorries parked in the loading bay”. Lace, in her room at The Palace, feels “on the back of her neck, a familiar scorching. Her eyes burn red-hot and suddenly the wall in front of her caves in.” This is a novel concerned with – obsessed with – what it feels like to be alive and, by extension, why, for some of us, life may become excruciating to bear.

The Suicide Club initially adopts a distancing and ironic view of suicide: as Bright lies on Gibby’s trolley, “his right leg crooked up at an almost casual angle, as if he’s relaxing on a midday lawn”, the narrator observes lightly that “he’s the hero of his own play, a tragic protagonist in an urban myth”. But, as the novel progresses, the emotional stakes are raised, and in the high drama of its closing scenes a more profound insight is sought.

Vintage’s media release includes a statement by the author, in which she writes that “I’ve come to believe that compassion is the only appropriate reaction to suicide” and that “true love involves letting others go – selflessly and non-judgementally – when their suffering becomes too great for them to bear”. In a sense, the novel itself performs this act of letting go, by situating suicide as an act of resolution, of narrative negentropy. In the context of current concern around youth suicide (particularly here in New Zealand), this is inevitably controversial; one reviewer has already accused the novel of glamourising suicide.

We should, of course, be cautious about prescribing how fiction may treat, not only suicide, but any controversial topic. Novels are not social marketing tools, and should not be required to align with a simplified, pre-approved script. But, equally, narrative resolution must be earned. This is a novel so sympathetic to the points of view of its mentally-ill young protagonists, it makes each of them the sole authority, not only on whether life has become unbearable, but on whether there is any option other than to end their life. In the real world, even when we acknowledge the former, we are rightly reluctant to concede the latter. But, in the world of The Suicide Club, this distinction is elided, and the characters are delivered to their fates by an unwavering romantic logic. In the end, despite its stylistic inventiveness and manifest charms, The Suicide Club is a flawed and troubling treatment of its subject matter.

Emma Martin is a Wellington writer.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
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