My rating: ✯✯✯✯✯
This was my first Coelho novel, and I also have a copy of 'The Alchemist' tucked away somewhere. Even though the book is translated from the Portuguese, I thought that the author's writing style was powerful.
The plot follows Veronika, who decides to commit suicide. She is twenty-four, and believes that she has experienced everything she could experience. She feels that getting married, falling in love, having children and growing old are just forms of repetition of a life she would rather not prolong. Veronika hates the idea of repeating the mundane moments of life. This poor girl has never felt that she had much of a purpose or passion in life. She went to university and then came home to work in the library. She does not have aspirations to carry her along. Between taking the overdose of sleeping pills and losing consciousness, Veronika meditates on how this will affect her parents. They have loved her fully, given her everything she could ask for, and truly the best start in life. However, after living alone for six years, Veronika decides that she has experienced enough and it has nothing to do with love. The only way she relates her suicide to her parents is to make sure she dies in a way that they won't have to identify a disgusting, disfigured corpse.
Veronika's plan does not go ahead as she hopes - she does not die, but wakes up in a hospital for mentally ill patients. She is told that the overdose of sleeping pills has damaged her heart irreparably and that she only has about five days to live. The doctors give her injections, telling her that they will try to reverse the damage done to her heart, but that really she should prepare to live out her final days.
This is a rather philosophical novel, as one would expect from the fact that Veronika almost dies but has a second chance of sorts. We meet some oddballs in the mental hospital, Villette. There are even a group called "The Fraternity" who are not really mad, just eccentric, but their families have enough money to keep them in the hospital. They prefer the hospital to their homes because people are allowed to do or say what they like - after all, they're "crazy".
The characters in the novel go through awareness of death, and awareness of life. Veronika's predicament causes other patients to question whether they are happy to stay consumed by their madness, or whether they want to fight to be well - to live their lives. Veronika herself does plenty of soul-searching, trying to decide whether there is a god, or what happens after we die. She realises that every hour of every day is full of choices, of how to live and how to use our existence. The book also makes the reader think a lot about the lives of the "sane" and "normal" in society. One of the patients tells Veronika a story about a king who makes all his subjects go mad to assert his power over them, but because he is different to the majority they stop listening and rebel against him. In order to right the situation, the king must make himself mad, and then his people respect him again. The novel tries to tell us that "normal" is only what the majority do. It is not the best way or the tried-and-tested way, it is just what everybody decided to do. Thanks to other patients, Veronika also realises that she has definitely not experienced everything possible, and opens up her mind to new ideas.
This is a very intense, fairly emotional book. I am not really affected by these types of things, but the parts about Veronika's heart attacks were close to home for me and made me feel slightly uncomfortable. However, I did not want to stop reading - if anything, I could empathise with Veronika more. It is very interesting, but sad, to see how the other patients think of Veronika in her doomed state. I don't want people to think that this is a grotesque book about the struggles of dying - it is not grotesque. It is an appreciation of life and what it has to offer, and a meditation on how people live through their existence. It causes inward-seeking questions about whether we are living how we want to, whether we really grasp hold of what life has to offer, and why more of us don't follow our vocation. I think that the word "Decides" in the title holds some significance too - it is all about choices.
This review was written by guest blogger Jemma
Image via goodreads.com