A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #29:-
THE DEVIL AND MISS PRYM
Harper Collins hb, 201pp, £10.99
Coelho’s latest novel poses an interesting moral dilemma. A man comes to the remote village of Viscos, where a century’s old way of life is staring extinction in the face. He offers its inhabitants ten gold bars if they will commit a murder. At first repelled, the villagers soon start to rationalise what they are about to do in terms of one sacrificing for the many, though curiously, or perhaps not, the one isn’t consulted by the many. It’s up to Chantal, the Miss Prym of the title and the subject of a side wager, to find a way out for everyone.
I enjoyed the last book that I read by Coelho, but this time around the publisher’s hype, describing him as ‘a storyteller with the power to inspire nations’, has me waving my arms around like Robbie the Robot on speed and shouting ‘Warning! Warning!’ Those kind of guys always end badly, as witness the example of one Mr Adolf Hitler and his Mein Kampf.
Fortunately Coelho takes a more humanistic and inclusive approach than the moustached madman. This is a beautifully written book with a deceptive depth for such a slim volume. The characterisation and dialogue are spot on, while the timeless feel of Viscos and its people’s way of life is convincingly rendered. As a depiction of the moral confusion arising out of personal tragedy and how easily people can be reconciled to evil the book is compelling.
On the down side, the religious convictions that permeated Veronika Decides to Die, to which this is intended as a sequel of sorts, are here presented more overtly, with Angels and Devils prompting the characters to act, a device offered as fact rather than metaphor. It intrudes an element of sideshow into a drama that would’ve worked far better without it, tending to devalue human effort. And at the end Coelho cheats, completely sidestepping the moral dilemma he’s elaborated at such length and so well. After promising much The Devil and Miss Prym only part delivers.