“And all of us, one way or another, are insane.”
For my first book review, I decided to revisit one of my all-time favourites. I was introduced to this book in Beijing China on my travels by a fellow backpacker but was running short on cash (and backpack space – part of the reason for my eventual acceptance of e-books!), so didn’t buy it. When it turned up in a hostel book swap a few weeks later in Auckland New Zealand, it seemed it was meant to be. Perhaps it speaks of where I was at in my life that I was drawn to it!
Veronika Decides To Die tells the story of a twenty-something Slovenian woman who seems to have it all. A good job, a loving family, friends, lovers and her youth and beauty. Despite this, something she can’t identify is missing in her life and so she makes the decision to kill herself. After passing out on an overdose of pills, Veronika wakes up in a mental institution, only to be told that the damage has already been done, and that she will die in a matter of days.
Veronika Decides To Die is, like Veronika herself, is shamelessly introverted at first, the limited scope allowing Coelho to focus as he does so well on his character to tell a very human story through a single protagonist. Her journey, one she makes without ever leaving the building, is intensely personal, allowing the reader to interpret and react to the themes in their own world view. Veronika is a flawed heroine, unashamedly selfish and more than a little narrow-minded, but faced with her own mortality and confinement with those characters deemed “crazy” by society, she undergoes a transformation. We’re introduced to the people she meets in her drug-induced daze while her time runs out and she (and Coelho) contemplates living versus existing, embracing life versus simply going through the motions. What does it mean to truly live? What am I doing? Where do I belong? At first, Veronika doesn’t open up enough to tackle these provocative topics, content to let her suicide be attributed to something as inconsequential as the question; “where is Slovenia?”. But as her time slips away, so do her inhibitions and it’s in these pages where the book comes alive, sparking the imagination and creating one “a-ha” moment after another. Love it or hate it, I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t identified with Veronika at some point or another in their life (maybe not as dramatic as suicide, but you get the idea).
Simply put, I loved this book (though was perhaps slightly worried by how much I identified with the “heroine”!). Paulo Coelho explores what is means to be mad in a mad world in his typical, almost lyrical writing style. It’s a stunning book, fable-like in its plot, an absolute must-read for anyone who’s ever felt lost, directionless or just wondered what on earth life is all about. The Veronika we see at the end of the novel is not the same one we meet at the beginning. Nor is she the same girl with a different haircut (a pet peeve of mine and massively lazy way to signify “transformation”). The journey she goes on, while not leaving the building, is astounding and, dare I say it, life affirming (oh that’s right, I went there).
So why not five stars? Like Coelho’s writing, this is a love it or hate it book, mainly down to the writing style I love so much, but it is hugely divisive. The book is littered with the kind of quotes you see on Facebook in a calligraphy font over a sunset background, and there’s an author cameo that is unforgivably self-indulgent. The themes of mind over matter are interestingly explored, but for me there was a little too much navel gazing at times which detracted from the story as a whole and tried my patience once or twice. The same goes for the surplus of supporting characters which caused Veronika to get lost in her own story at times.
All that aside, Veronika Decides To Die is a wonderful read, and I absolutely urge anyone who comes across it, be it in a hostel book swap or anywhere else, to pick it up. After all, nothing in this world happens by chance …