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Lea’s on track until her beloved father, missing for 88 years and on the wanted list, mysteriously reappears, which starts Lea on her trajectory of self-discovery and brings us to the core of the unfolding drama and directly into the beating heart of the secretive Suicide Club. Here, people choose to live and die on their own terms, shunning immortality in an act of defiance and the chance to live life as they wish. Her unorthodox behaviour alerts the Ministry, which puts her under “observation”, and she is sent to the equivalent of reform school where she meets Anja Nilsson, a woman at the other end of the social scale.

Anja, like Lea, has a secret. She nurses a mother who cannot die, a former opera singer who, like Lea’s father, has lived off-piste, so to speak. She hovers in a state somewhere between life and death because she is not eligible for the organs needed to keep her alive. As Lea’s life unravels, she discovers what living is really about. Heng writes beautifully about letting go, having control over your own destiny and knowing when to say goodbye. “Death,” she writes, “is the best invention life had to offer.”

Heng explores the complicated mother-daughter relationship between Lea and Uju and the sense of loss when Lea’s brother, Samuel, who does not have the requisite gene composition, dies. Their rebel father, Kaito, who ultimately has the life sucked out of him, opts for “trad food” — hamburgers and fried chicken, both on the banned list — instead of the prescribed tasteless, life-enhancing liquid nutripacks.

Singapore-born Heng, who is not yet 30, explores her real-life obsession with loss, fear of death and mortality in Suicide Club, and takes a long, hard look at the American obsession with the wellness culture, the notion of perfection, and the social hierarchy where the chosen are thin, beautiful, privileged, competitive and antiseptic.

Suicide Club is a very good story, and Heng writes like a dream about of the triumph of love and the benefit of not playing by the rules. In their search for meaning, her characters reject conformity for individuality and freedom.

Perhaps our world is not so bad.

While Suicide Club engages the reader until the last word, The Town’s final sentence is one of the few that engaged me at all: “No town continues to be just a town. No answer remains true to the end.” There is something lyrical in those lines but the story, the characters and the message fall short. The final paragraph was the highlight of the book and not only because it marked the end.

The Town is Australian writer Shaun Prescott’s first novel and from the opening page I didn’t care. I didn’t like Prescott’s style of writing. I found it pedestrian, prosaic and repetitive. It’s a dull story whose characters I hoped would disappear into the epidemic of multiple holes that mysteriously appeared in the nameless town where the nameless narrator arrives to begin  research for his book on the disappearing towns of the central west of New South Wales.

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