Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Veronika is a young woman who possess all the success that life has to offer, and yet she is empty. And so, one day she chooses to overdose on sleeping pills. What surprised me about this was that Veronika wasn’t what I would call depressed; she was just sort of empty. I know very little personally about suicidal tendencies, but I have always thought that you would have to be in a fairly tortured state of mind to choose death over life.

Then I had an odd experience while reading this novel. A young woman contacted me by email, told me she had wanted to die since she was fifteen, and asked me advise her how to do it in such a way that it would look like an accident and save her parents some shame. This request was based on a misinterpretation of an essay I wrote online called “How to slowly kill yourself and your children.” That was just a shock title for an essay about the long-term effects of food additives! We talked for a few emails before she broke contact, and all I could think was, “This is Veronika.” She seemed possessed by an inexplicable feeling of emptiness about life that I couldn’t get to the bottom of, but which was quite real to her.

In Veronika’s case, the suicide was interrupted. She was rushed to hospital and saved, but unfortunately suffered irreparable heart damage that would kill her within a week. Now she has a week to live in the certain knowledge that she will die. The week is spent at Villette mental hospital where Veronika, of her own volition, starts to undergo a change and starts to affect the lives of the other patients. Interestingly, I learned that the author has spent time as a patient in a mental hospital, and that certainly raises the calibre of book above mere fable.

The running theme of story is an examination of what insanity actually is, hinting that the real madness is what’s going on in the world outside the walls of Villette, defined as sanity purely by strength of numbers. Here and there, the book diverts from Veronika’s perspective to delve into the past experiences of the other patients. These were insightful journeys.

As I was reading, I kept wondering how a book with a title like this was going to end in a way that would be satisfying without indulging in melodrama. But Coeho pulls it off. The ending was delightful.