Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Suicide Club by Rhys Thomas

Rhys Thomas's outstanding debut novel, The Suicide Club, fits rather neatly into the great pantheon of cool teenage fiction. The sparkling first person narrative recalls Catcher in the Rye; its exploration of the childhood/adulthood cusp has a hint of Absolute Beginners; and the post-therapy retrospective story structure is reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange. But this is no by-numbers amalgam of previous writings - The Suicide Club stands up as a novel in its own right.

Central character Richard Harper is a 15-year-old emo. Far from being a teenage nihilist or self-pitying doom merchant he is hopelessly drawn to drama and romance. So when a charismatic new kid turns up at school proposing a suicide club he, along with a group of friends, is happy to sign up.

In fact Harper is a bright boy. Much of the fizz of his first person narration is derived from his smart-arse sense of humour and in his sharp observations of his contemporaries. Those hoping to read a grim analysis of teen suicide clusters a la Bridgend will be disappointed. This is actually a very amusing comic novel.

Nor is The Suicide Club written in a dour realist style. Frequently Harper interrupts his own narrative to address the reader. At one point he says: "Actually, do you mind if I quickly jump out of the story and say something here?" Throughout, the reader is reminded that he/she is being told a tale and Harper often alludes to television and film when telling it.

Pop culture is a vital element in this novel. Music, in particular, exerts a strong hold on Harper. For instance, there is a sub-plot which outlines his difficulty in getting hold of a new My Chemical Romance record. You'll also find references to the Smashing Pumpkins, Damien Rice, Radiohead and the Lost Prophets, amongst others.

The town in which Harper resides is middle-class and anglo-American. He dwells near an airbase which explains the profusion of yankee characters but you get the feeling the author is more than happy to use diction which incorporates so many Americanisms. It adds an energy and richness to the language which often sounds part school text book part ironic episode of Dawson's Creek.

Is The Suicide Club a convincing portrayal of adolescence? Ask an emo. I certainly bought into Harper's hormonal worldview with all its contradictions. For example, for all his overblown idealism he is capable of petty cruelties, particularly toward his younger brother Toby. For all his academic intelligence he is unable to stand up to the sinister and manipulative new-boy Freddie, even though he is, clearly, aware of the dark side of his friend's personality. So, is Richard Harper naive, a drama queen or a bit fucked up in the head? Read the book and decide for yourself.

Rhys Thomas's The Suicide Club is a smart and funny debut novel published by Doubleday and it's on sale now.