Thinking of a light-hearted summer read? Stay away from The Suicide Club which features three unstable twenty year olds who throughout this novel appear to be moments away from destroying themselves. It took a long time for this reviewer to engage with Sarah Quigley’s latest. The characters struggle with fragile mental states that leave them vulnerable to a distressing sense of purposelessness. All three are unusually bright and each of them has experienced disturbing childhood trauma which keeps them shackled to the past.
The narrative opens with the attempted suicide of Bright O’Connor when he falls from a 20-storey building, against all odds, on to Gibby Lux’s newspaper cart. Gibby is a maverick inventor, a young man whose best friend, Lace, suffering from a tragedy she can’t forget, co-incidentally witnesses Bright’s plunge. From this apparently random event they find themselves in a club of three after committing to a stay at a retreat in Bavaria led by an unorthodox, possibly shonky therapist.
It’s tough work identifying with three traumatised young people. None of them are naturally socially charming; only Gibby is likeable. Bright, a precocious novelist, has a dark sense of humour and Lace is appealingly fey, however their combined self-absorption remains unrelenting and the love which blossoms between Bright and Lace cannot prevent the inevitable. Because each character has a motive to step out of life, we are never sure until the final chapters who will prove the least rehabilitated. In fact, although Quigley’s pitch warns against trite resolution, the author also takes another gamble: in order to make the conclusion unexpected and believable, she needs to withhold information from the reader.
This plotting device is part of Quigley’s intention, expressed at one point through Bright’s note-taking: to explore human tragedies without resorting to melodrama. How can truth be told obliquely and still remain truth? What narrative voice about three alienated youth distances, without alienating the reader, especially as each claims to love the other? In search of an answer, Quigley keeps to the third person and uses irony, black laughter and the conceits of film-making and writing to subvert our need for a story (or a romance). By deliberately addressing the reader at moments of greatest intensity, The Suicide Club refuses to cosy up to protagonists, keeping intimacy for readers and characters alike momentary. While the horizon of the novel allows for a hopeful outcome, that too is undercut in the final acknowledgment of life and – writing – as ‘a fool’s game’ which ‘some of us have to keep playing . . .’ (p 412).
With subject matter apparently less dramatic than that of The Conductor (2011), The Suicide Club presents as more experimental and more challenging. Threesomes are a classic component of novels featuring any degree of social interaction, so yet another offering covering the terrain initially seems banal. However, Quigley’s skilled traversal of what could have been material for the cutting floor justifies her own evaluation of the story where ‘love – real love – is large enough to enfold death and absorb it . . .’. [PRHNZ Media Release flyer]
Anna Smith has recently retired from teaching English literature at the University of Canterbury Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha. She has written on New Zealand artists and writers as well as reviews, short stories and a work of fiction.