As read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge
I found this review very difficult to write. Not because the writing was bad or because the plot had more holes than my knitting (I keep dropping stitches).
In fact it was quite the reverse.
From my soapbox: first things first, I don’t find the subject of mental illness funny. After even a short period of depression, it can be almost impossible to just get up and get back on with life. What I do believe is that humour is one of the best methods to break down boundaries and get people talking in earnest about taboo subjects.
“Contemplating suicide? Don’t worry, you are not alone!”
Thus begins the attempt of two men, who feel they have nothing to live for, to found a group for other suicidal people so that they don’t have to die alone.
After attracting more members than they had believed possible, the group sits down to discuss how to go about the business of dying. Their suicide attempts become ever more desperate as they travel across Europe, trying to find the perfect place to die. At almost every turn the group is foiled… by itself.
With each attempt, the Spectacular Group Suicide members explore their own and each others’ reasons for wanting to end their lives. For the first time in months (and years, in some cases), they start to talk about what they are going through.
Paasilinna takes on one of the most difficult subjects to come to terms with. Using bleak humour, shocking (but sadly true) statistics and a surprising level of sensitivity, he tackles Finland’s greatest killer.
Feel free to flame me for saying this, but I felt that The Spectacular Group Suicide was a little like some of Chekhov’s work in terms of the plot’s tragicomic element. Within the first few pages, two of the main characters meet because they’re both looking for a quiet place to commit suicide.
The plot picked up momentum which was sustained for the first third of the novel. As the road-trip/ self-discovery elements started to set in, I felt that the novel started to sag a little. The pace picked up again near the end, but didn’t feel as smooth-flowing as it had done at the start.
There are facts and figures that I couldn’t believe, even after I had verified them. The factual elements are a slap in the face and strengthen (what I believe is) the underlying message that this is an issue that should be discussed publicly.
Whilst the main issue is suicide (and its causes), Paasilinna subtly weaves in a couple of other taboo subjects, such as HIV. This was skilfully done as this allows him to create a few more multi-faceted characters (something that can be hard to find in books about social issues *coughDickenscough*) who were as quick to condemn as they were to open their hearts to others like themselves.
Some elements devolved to the farcical, which did detract from the story. So as not to drop massive spoilers, I’m just going to write: fisticuffs with fascists and leave it at that.
The other element that left me somewhat disgruntled was Paasilinna’s portrayal of almost all people who seriously consider suicide as being able to find things worth living for after a few weeks of talking to others about how they feel. Research does indicate that people who can talk about how they feel can stabilise after months of therapy. The thing is that this ‘rule’ does not work in every case. The generalisation made the ending slightly less believable and could lead to misconceptions.
Whilst it’s easy to find books that deal with death, it’s much harder to find novels that explore suicide and attempted suicide without stigmatizing these people. Paasilinna has a done a wonderful job, taking a taboo subject and some facts and creating a story that gives hope to anyone who wants to start a discussion about this subject.
Whilst I have several disagreements with generalisation and a plot that doesn’t always flow, I truly believe that this book should be read by more adults so as to decrease the taboo nature of this subject.
After all, the main message of The Spectacular Group Suicide is that a little communication and understanding can go a long way in helping the most vulnerable around us.
WNI’s verdict: Wavering towards… WIN!
- Families affected by teen suicide share their stories (fox13now.com)
- ‘Hemlock Society’: New film on suicide workshop (ibnlive.in.com)
- SUICIDE: Perspective, Facts and Myths. Let’s Live (zebbook.wordpress.com)