book review: Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

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SUICIDE CLUB by Rachel Heng
★★☆☆☆
Henry Holt, July 10, 2018

 

Suicide Club is a book full of brilliant concepts that never develop into a convincing or engaging narrative. It’s a speculative novel set in a near-future New York society in which death is illegal and the pursuit of immortality is all-consuming. 100-year-old Lea Kirino is a model citizen; she has a high-level job on the New York exchange, which now deals in trading human organs, she has a genetically beautiful fiancé, and she’s being considered for a promotion. But things change for Lea when she spots her estranged, fugitive father for the first time in 88 years, and she comes in contact with a group called the Suicide Club, which advocates for the right for everyone to live and die on their own terms.

So it pretty much goes without saying that this is a fantastic premise; where Suicide Club falls apart is in the execution. It starts out on a promising enough note – the worldbuilding at first seems impressive, and Rachel Heng does a good job of integrating her new terminology into the narrative so that it doesn’t overwhelm. It’s not until you get a decent amount of the way in that numerous holes begin to develop – and it’s not so much in the nitty-gritty details as it is in the overarching concept. If society is still comprised of so many “sub-100s” (people with a ‘normal’ lifespan), how has death become such a cultural taboo? And why don’t these groups revolt against those in power to gain access to their technology? Why is Lea so closely monitored for a supposed suicide attempt after she’s hit by a car; does no one ever have a genuine accident in this society? In some ways this reminded me of Felicia Yap’s Yesterday, another underwhelming speculative novel whose premise falls to pieces if you look too closely.

But the biggest problem with this book was the protagonist, Lea. I don’t even know where to begin. I was sort of buddy reading this with my friend Hannah, who at one point said that the only logical explanation she would accept for Lea’s behavior was if she were revealed to be an alien at the end of the book. Spoiler alert: she isn’t. But I think that just about sums it up. Even though Lea has a lifespan of 200-300 years (so she’s technically only middle aged), she’s still 100-years-old, so you’d think we’d see some wisdom and life experience occasionally reflected in her behavior. Instead, she is the world’s most wooden, immature, simple-minded character, who makes the most incomprehensible decisions and shows absolutely zero critical thinking skills. This would be convincing characterization for an 11-year-old girl; not a 100-year-old New York businesswoman. Her backstory too is laughably incongruous with her characterization, and her character development is hackneyed and unrealistic. Despite the questionable worldbuilding and positively dull narrative, I think this book could have been saved if we’d been focusing on someone other than Lea.

Which brings my to my next point, which is that we follow another character for a few chapters, Anja, a Swedish immigrant living in New York with her mother who is being kept alive in a vegetative state. Anja is vulnerable, complex, sympathetic – everything I hoped Lea would be – and it makes no sense to me why we follow Lea’s journey so closely at the expense of Anja’s. The split between their chapters is probably 70/30 in Lea’s favor, which makes me wonder how Lea can come across as so under-developed when she has more than twice the narrative that Anja has.

So all in all, a disappointment. But it’s worth noting that this is a debut novel, and a rather ambitious one at that. The writing itself was solid, and again, the premise was brilliant, so I think Rachel Heng shows promise. I’ll be interested to see where she goes from here – though hopefully it’s somewhere with a more convincing and sympathetic protagonist.

Thank you to Netgalley, Henry Holt, and Rachel Heng for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

14 thoughts on “book review: Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

  1. UGH I felt the same way about this book – great concept and poor execution. 😦 I was so disappointed.

    LOLOL at Lea being an alien though… that would have explained a lot. Great review, I was so annoyed I didn’t even notice the glaring plot holes with the narrative!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was SO disappointing 😦

      Omg right?! I cannot remember the last time I read a protagonist this poorly written. And the plot holes just started grating more and more as I continued to read… I’m ok with not having every single one of my questions answered but some aspects of this world just stretched my suspension of disbelief too far.

      Like

  2. Great review!
    And ugh, I am still struggling through this book. Right now I am trying to read at least a few oages every day because I do want to finish it but I am so not enjoying this.
    My newest annoyence is the fact that she is ALWAYS sweating behind her knees – and I am just not sure that is a thing people do. Is that a thing people do? And think about?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad I just buckled down and read the rest in a couple of sittings, this is not one that I’d want to draw out. It was just so boring.

      Omg I can’t say I noticed the sweating behind the knees thing, but I’m intrigued. Why does Lea sweat at all with her biologically perfect body?!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Once I noticed it, I saw it everywhere. She really does sweat a whole lot for somebody so robotic. I really do not want to keep reading this. Maybe I will just buckle up and finish it in one sitting later today just to get it done. Ugh, my review will not be a nice one.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I made it over the half-way point. So, there’s that at least. My Kindle has it will take me two more hours, which isn’t too bad. (but again, been binge-reading other stuff)

        Liked by 1 person

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