A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #26:-
VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE
Harper Collins, £6.99
Veronika, a young Slovenian woman, who in her own mind at least has everything to live for, decides to kill herself rather than hang around waiting for it all to slip away. She takes an overdose, but is revived in Villete asylum, where the doctors inform her that she has damaged her heart and has only a week or so to live. Under sentence of death Veronika is led to reassess her options, to reflect on the life she so nearly threw away and recognise its worth. At the same time she acts as a catalyst to precipitate change in others, her presence in the asylum having an effect on the inmates, many of whom are cured but have become institutionalised.
Coelho is currently the best-selling writer in the world after John Grisham, and it’s easy to see why. This slim volume I suspect contains more of lasting value than can be found in Grisham’s entire oeuvre. Using Veronika as his point of departure, through several interlocking stories Coelho presents an oblique approach to madness, asking exactly what it is and why we should fear it, and by inference illuminates the thorny problem of life itself. A Brazilian, Coelho’s work is rooted firmly in Western literary tradition. Ideologically Veronika brings to mind the Camus of The Myth of Sisyphus, while its plot owes much to Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Coelho appeals more directly to the emotions than either. The author he most resembles is Vonnegut. There is the same lightness of touch about the prose, the same compassionate perspective, the same overlap of the author’s life with his fiction, the same sense of spirituality minus a smug religiosity. Beautifully written and packed with insight, Veronika Decides to Die is a book that is wholly and unconditionally life affirming, inviting the reader to take a leap of faith, to live on one’s own terms rather than those of others. Buy it, if for no better reason than to knock Grisham off the top spot.