Rachel Heng’s debut novel ponders youth, perfection & immortality

  • Books
  • Sunday, 02 Dec 2018

The provocative read 'Suicide Club' is US-based Singaporean author Rachel Heng's first novel. Photo: Rachel Heng

What would you do if you could live forever? But perhaps more revealing is what would you do to be able to achieve immortality?

Rachel Heng’s debut novel, Suicide Club, takes this age-old issue and transplants it into a world set in the near future where the average human life expectancy is well into the three digits. In this reality, advancements in science and medical technology have given humankind a shot at immortality – but only to those who are deserving of it.

It is a society obsessed with youth and wellness, and it wants them for all eternity.

And now it looks like there is a way to get there with cold, calculated precision and perfect smiles all around.

“We have been hearing about cryonics in the news, about the option of paying a lot of money to freeze your head after you die in the hopes that you can be revived years from now. This aspect of man playing God and trying to hack death, and of course, the intense class divide that this will invite, was partly the inspiration for this book,” says Heng, 30.

On a personal level, she has always had a fear of death and loss. Like the realisation you had as a kid when it hit you that your parents will die one day, and that you will die too, and many after you, she offers.

“I have always spent a lot of time thinking about it, a kind of reckoning with mortality as you grow older. It got me thinking about what it would be like if you could live forever and didn’t have to lose anyone, ever. So the book was a way for me to test this out: What would happen if you could live forever, and under what circumstances would that fall apart,” she says in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.

No surprise then that her vivid characters in this novel often find themselves between a rock and a hard place.


When you are perfection incarnate as far as genetics goes, how hard will you fight to keep the privilege of immortality? You know how to flash that perfectly fabricated smile, but can you do it in the face of adversity? The eyes never lie? Well, that can be easily calibrated.

And do you really need to be able to feel the grass beneath your feet to truly be alive? Oh, overrated.

This is a society on the cusp of something revolutionary, and everyone wants to be part of it. Well, almost.

Heng’s dystopian world is not totalitarian, even if it tries to be. The quest for immortality is all-pervasive, but there exists a network of individuals on the fringe who call themselves the Suicide Club. These are rebels who reject this pursuit of eternal life and choose instead to live and die on their own terms.

But in a world where death is not only taboo but illegal, what can they do to make a stand?

Heng is the first to admit that her book is clearly skewed towards her belief that living forever might not necessarily be so great after all.

“Death gives a shape to our lives. Ultimately, it is what we do with the time we have, rather than how much time we have, that matters. We should live life to the fullest. At the end of the day, the most important things are the relationships you have and the memories you cherish, rather than a sanitised existence where you do all the right things to live longer in a life stripped of joy,” she says.

Heng, who was born in Singapore, is currently a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, the United States, where she is pursuing her MFA in fiction and screenwriting.

“I only started writing quite recently, about four years ago,” she says of her short stories.

“But I have read my entire life and I love books. Books were always the lens through which I understood the world. So even though I started writing quite late, I feel like I have been preparing to write my whole life. I had this running commentary in my head which I think of as my fictional voice, which had already been locked in gear many years before I put pen to paper. When I finally started writing, it just felt right,” she shares.

Her short fiction has received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention and Prairie Schooner’s Jane Geske Award, while Suicide Club will be translated into nine languages.

Despite its title, she assures readers that it is a book that is life-affirming and one that looks for hope in what is often a dark theme.

“It also has all these interesting sci-fi ideas that allow people to live forever, but it is really a human story at heart. I think writing this novel just reinforced what I already believed beforehand about living life to the fullest.

“Yes, is about not making yourself miserable by denying yourself something just because there is sugar in it, but it is also about valuing human relationships and being open to love, hope and pain, instead of just focusing on the physical,” she says.

Suicide Club is a fast-paced, entertaining read that could just be a cautionary tale about biting off more than you can chew. It could also almost be a lesson in how you should be careful about what you wish for.

But testament to Heng’s skill as an author is how her writing never feels preachy and leaves enough open-ended possibilities for the reader to wonder ... what if?

What if you will never die? But then again, what if you can’t?

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