Lives for the taking

Sarah Quigley's latest novel, The Suicide Club, again shows the New Zealand author to be adept at handling difficult topics.

New Zealand author Sarah Quigley. Photo: supplied.
New Zealand author Sarah Quigley. Photo: supplied.

Sarah Quigley
Penguin Random House


"Does it strike you as odd, the rises and falls that have occurred in just a few pages? Soaring from rooftops and penthouses, speeding up lift shafts and stairwells; descents external and internal, leaves dropping, clothes slipping, heightened hopes, mounting expectations, lowering of standards, plummeting stomachs, sinking hearts. Life isn’t about trudging forwards; more often than not, it’s a series of lurches."

Bright O’Connor, Lace McDonald and Gibby Lux are three super-bright yet messed-up individuals. At 20 they all carry traits of whimsy: Bright is a successful novelist, and a "red-haired, white-faced, green-eyed boy" with a tight hold on people; Gibby, an inventor, is a "soft pale mushroom person"; and lovely Lace, comedian in a club, racing like a light butterfly through the city in sparkly heels, leaves stardust and adulation in her wake.

Despite possessing grand ambition and ideas, all struggle with life, walking a fine tightrope between survival and the surrender to a catatonic death wish. All have been deeply traumatised during their childhoods, and resulting disorders have made them periodically unwilling or unable to function. They display ongoing symptoms as well as sporadic episodes of physical and mental breakdown, such as for Lace, in her frequent sobbing, or for Gibby, when a terrifying roar starts in his ears and it builds up to feel as if the whole world is collapsing.

Quigley opens her story magnificently. Both prose and form are magnetising as a narrator dips in and out of city streets and scenes, following these characters in stills and pans and snapshots as they dash jerkily through the night streets or fling themselves from high buildings with suicidal propensity.

Three-dimensional and minutely described they also paradoxically come across as two-dimensional paper cut-outs; not quite real, puppets dancing in the night to a piper’s tune. Lace darting through the streets under filmic surveillance is reminiscent of Run Lola Run. While Bright is spinning through the air having leapt off a building, it conjures up Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen. This scene is surprisingly enchanted, where all the people with whom Bright has ever crossed paths gather to witness, flickering frenetically like moths, "in the glare of extinction". Rushdie springs to mind at these times.

As personal crises prevail, the threesome choose or are forced into a change of scene, leaving the crowded streets of London for a month in quiet Bavaria. Here they will face a stint in a wellness centre, run by the new-agey Geoffrey, with able assistance. The Palace is dingy and with an ever-lingering smell, a forum for discussion and also a place of generally free mobility. Relationships develop and mental states sway to and fro.

In group sessions our three talk out their trauma, though wrenching into memories reawakens alarm. Bright is terrified that by revelations he will be brought back to the death ledge, "to the clenching of fists, the fingernails cutting into palms, the untied shoelace, the shaking, the soaring terrifying liquefying leap".

This second half is decidedly different from the first, not only in setting but in structure and form as well. Here is a much looser structure, and the plot, though filled with memorable individuals, is narrated in a less snappy manner.

However, if the form is less satisfactory the content almost makes up for this as each character slowly peels back layers of repression and the reader is let into their worlds of torment. Poor Bright, Lace and Gibby try their hardest to make it through this month, and for them, life really is a series of falls, staggerings and lurches.

Christchurch-born but based in Berlin since 2000, Quigley holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford and is a former Burns Fellow. She has written short fiction, poetry, and several novels, including the outstanding Conductor (2011), also set in Germany.

Like this previous work, Quigley shows herself adept at sensitive treatment of difficult topics. As she says, reflecting on the themes in this work, however we may think we know another person, we will never know how it feels to be them. Therefore, she believes, and illustrates successfully here, the only appropriate response to suicide is compassion.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.


Win a copy

The ODT has four copies of The Suicide Club, by Sarah Quigley, to give away courtesy of Penguin Random House. For your chance to win a copy, email books editor with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and ‘‘The Suicide Club’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, May 30.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, The Starlings, by Catherine McKinnon, courtesy of Text Publishing: Mary-Ellen Goodlet, of Dunedin, Jan Christie, of Green Island, Winton Davies, of Wanaka, Matt Henderson, of Waimate.


Where to get help

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

• Youthline: 0800 376 633

• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (Mon-Fri 1pm to 10pm. Sat-Sun 3pm-10pm)

• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

• Samaritans: 0800 726 666

• If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.





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