5 Thought-Provoking Novels About Mental Illness

5.) Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Premise: A young woman who attempted suicide is told that in the process her heart was damaged and she now has only five days to live. While it might seem that this would be all the same to a suicidal patient, it turns out to matter.

4.) Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Premise: The lead character, Toru, doesn’t suffer from mental illness, but his life is shaped by those who have. He must decide between two women. One of whom, Naoko, has been institutionalized since her boyfriend, Kizuki, committed suicide. Kizuki had been Toru’s high school best friend, and this weighs heavily in Toru’s feelings of obligation. Add into this Naoko’s roommate–a sage influence in Toru’s life, despite being institutionalized herself.

3.) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Premise: An adolescent boy, Caden Bosch, is transformed from a model student to a paranoid schizophrenic. The title refers to the deepest point on Earth, down in the Marianas Trench, and comes into play because the institutionalized Bosch believes he’s on a ship who’s Captain thinks all the treasure in the oceans got swept to the deepest point.

2.) Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Premise: The unnamed narrator meets the eccentric Tyler Durden and soon Fight Club is born. It’s fueled by a feeling that men have been tamed to be turned into consumers. However, the underground fights are only the beginning, and our lead character is dismayed to discover that from the Club has sprung Project Mayhem with a nefarious terrorist plot.

1.) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Premise: Randle McMurphy has convinced authorities that he’s insane for the purpose of getting out of hard labor in prison and into a “cushy” insane asylum. The ward is run by the iron hand of Nurse Ratched. McMurphy on the other hand is rebellious and unruly. The clash is inevitable. McMurphy increasingly disrupts Ratched’s sedate and harmonious ward (re: heavily drugged and cowed into submission.) The story is told from the perspective of a patient named Chief Bromden who has the staff convinced that he’s deaf and mute. Like McMurphy, he’s not what he appears. The book is a scathing indictment of how mental health care was conducted in Kesey’s day.

BOOK REVIEW: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is a short and simple book. Its premise can be summed up as “follow your dreams and all will work out.” It’s about a shepherd boy from Andalusia in southern Spain who yearns to travel. He sells his flock and sets out to do just that. Over the course of the book, he crosses North Africa from Gibraltar to the pyramids of Egypt and back. Along the way he faces many setbacks and barriers, but his willingness to adopt a positive attitude and roll up his sleeves and get to work allows him to overcome these obstacles. As he travels, mysterious guides and mentors–most notably the title-roled Alchemist–show up along the way to induce him to keep going rather than giving up.

As with The Coroner’s Lunch, which I reviewed a couple of reviews back, there’s a supernatural component to this book that seems superfluous. First, the supernatural element doesn’t add much to the story. Second, to my mind, if you are trying to sell the notion that you can make your dreams come true (in this self-helpy sort of way), having your character live in a world of magic detracts from that message. The take away for the reader may be, “Sure, the shepherd boy could do it, he lives in a world in which people can turn lead into gold. In my world, bound by laws of thermodynamics and whatnot, things are not so simple.”

You will note that my middling rating is anomalous. Having skimmed through reviews of this book, I found they were overwhelmingly divided between 5 star and 1 star reviews. It’s rare for one to see the same book being cast both in the best and worst book role by various readers. However, that seems to be the case for this book. Some people adore this book and consider it life-changing. Others think it’s oversimplified tripe for granola-munching potheads and/or six-year olds. I suspect that Coelho is quite pleased. I know—as a writer—if you can’t get someone to love your book, you want them to despise it. Mediocrity doesn’t put one in good stead for building readership. Hate is a passionate response; it means the book struck some kind of chord. Clunkers are remembered just like perfect melodies; it’s the so-so performances that vanish into the background—or the bargain bin.

Unlike the lovers and haters, I found this book to be just alright. It presents some good ideas, but not novel ideas, and it does so in a clear but not brilliant way. It wouldn’t hurt to read it as it’s very short and highly readable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Veronika Decides to DieVeronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Veronika Decides to Die is about a young Slovenian woman, Veronika, who attempts suicide, fails, is institutionalized, and is informed that her attempted suicide damaged her heart and she has only five days to live. In the hospital she has to come to grips with what it means to be dying, but also what it means to be insane.

The book deals with the effect of Veronika’s death sentence diagnosis on her as well as on other patients with whom she interacts. The first patient Veronika comes in contact with is a depressive named Zedka who offers Veronika advice and insight. Then there is Maria, a woman who withdrew from her professional and family life to be institutionalized because she was having inexplicable panic attacks. Finally, there is Eduardo, a schizophrenic who is virtually non-functional when he meets Veronika, but who ends up in a relationship with the young woman nonetheless. These patients come to realize that they are hiding out at the hospital. They stay in the hospital because they are free to defy norms without judgment. When Veronika decides she doesn’t want to die hiding out, it has a profound impact on the others.

The book borrows heavily upon Coelho’s personal experience. He was institutionalized as a young man by parents who were disturbed when he went artsy and began hanging out with undesirables. Interestingly, Coelho has a cameo role in the book as himself. In the book he writes an article that playfully asks the question, “Where is Slovenia?” When Veronika is waiting to die from her overdose, she reads the article and decides to write a letter to the editor claiming that she killed herself because of the depressing effect of Coelho’s suggestion that nobody who’s anybody knows or cares where Slovenia is located.

In the end Veronika finds that she is truly free. Veronika seems to have everything at the beginning of the story: a job, boyfriends, and popularity. However, it’s those things that she comes to feel enslave her, and that’s what leads to the attempted suicide. In a way, Veronika is doubly freed. She is free because she is dying, and what can one do to a dying person. Second, she has been labeled crazy, and, having such a label, people expect her to act oddly. She has the freedom to do those things she has been too frightened to do all her life.

I’d recommend this book. It’s short, readable, and offers clear food for thought.

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