The cover of this beautiful novel declares it to be “a novel of redemption.” That may sound presumptuous and turn some people off, but in this case, don’t judge a book by what’s added to the cover by the marketing department.
The story is simple. Veronika, 24 years old, has decided that she can get no more out of her life in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Over the past five or six weeks, she has collected more than enough sleeping pills to kill herself, but for some unknown (or at least unstated) reason, the pills don’t work and Veronika wakes up in the local mental asylum, Villette. She meets with Dr. Igor – a man who just by his looks alone seems as though he should be a patient at the hospital instead of the head doctor – Veronika is told that the pills caused irreparable damage to her heart. She only has five days, six days at the most, to live.
The woman in the bed next to Veronika is telling the story of how her aunt had committed suicide and this is what Veronika thinks to herself, while also wondering why the woman is telling her this story to begin with:
“In a world where everyone struggles to survive whatever the cost, how could one judge those people who decide to die? No one can judge. Each person knows the extent of their own suffering or the total absence of meaning in their lives.”
Coming in and out sedation, in one of her more lucid moments, the nurse asks her, “Don’t you want to know who you are?” Veronika replies, “I already know. And it has nothing to do with what you can see happening in my body; it’s what’s happening in my soul.“
There is one tag line for the book (and the movie, which has finally been given a limited release here in the US this month) that perfectly sums up not just Veronika, but the other characters as well: It wasn’t until she decided to die that she found a reason to live.
“Because when everyone dreams, only a few realize their dreams, that makes cowards of us all.”
Being in Villette only because of her suicide attempt, Veronika has been given such freedom under the guise of “just another mental patient” that at first she still reels away from that freedom and is stuck under the subconscious programming of society. Then she starts to break out of her shell, discover her strength, and stops caring about what other people think.
In the middle of a guest’s presentation, she asks a question. It’s something that someone wouldn’t think is such a big deal. However, growing up as children and going through school, it’s as if there’s an unspoken programming going on that if you stop to ask a question to something you don’t understand, it means that you’re stupid. But that’s not what it means at all. Stopping to ask questions is what is healthy for civilization and government, although any government doesn’t like it much if you question too much.
Veronika speaking out to ask her question is the beginning of her own sort of rebirth. She rediscovers her love of the piano, thinking back of when she was a child and how her parents only motive of getting her piano lessons was so that she would have an artistic outlet, so that her future husband could show her off. Her piano teacher thought quite differently and the same as Veronika – that she had the talent and passion to be a concert pianist. It was all Veronika ever wanted, yet she settled and went to graduate school, only to end up working in a library and sleeping on the grounds of a church.
“If only everyone could know and live with their inner craziness. Would the world be a worse place for it? No, people would be fairer and happier.”
Through the people she meets in the mental hospital, who’s back stories you learn but in a well written way, and the love of a misdiagnosed young man (Eduard), Veronika begins to want to live again. There are things she wants to do, things she wants to experience.
When first introduced to the simplistic style of Coelho’s writing in the beginning, I was apprehensive how that would work for the tone of the book. It worked through the thought process and the suicide attempt and I could see how. It was after that when I really started to wonder. However, it wasn’t a hindrance; it worked beautifully.
On the surface, everything is simple, so a simplistic style is fitting. At the same time, it allows for you to see things that were there before, but see them deeper than before. Maybe you saw them the first time. For me though, I missed the majority of the subtext and commentary because I was awestruck and found myself in tears at times while reading, though at other times I laughed out loud.
I certainly believe this is a book that everyone should read. Veronika is an honest character; she doesn’t hide who she is, not anymore. She’s been stripped of the shame that society put on her because she was a woman, and she just wasn’t necessarily aware of it. She becomes uninhibited, brave, confident.
I can end it better than what the tag line led, with another quote straight from the book: “You should paint those visions of paradise rather than just talking about them.“
“God was there, and yet people believed they still had to go on looking, because it seemed too simple to accept that life was an act of faith.”