Book Club – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

One Monday night in the month is Book Club night, when I meet up with a group of chums from work to eat nachos or deep-fried Brie, drink beer or hot chocolate (whichever suits), complain about other work folk who aren’t there and maybe, a bit, sometimes, talk about a book we’ve all read. We meet here and annoy the other patrons with gales of cackling laughter and shouts for more hot chocolate, interspersed with occasional insightful and pertinent comments about the book in question.

This Monday we met a little earlier than usual and all ate together by way of a nod to the festive season, which was lovely, and then the serious ones who’d actually read the book got their copies out of their bags and we got down to business. This month’s book was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – I can’t remember who suggested it but it may have been me, on the basis of a half-remembered perusal as a student in my early twenties. I remembered the powerful allegory and the spare prose, and I remembered being haunted by the book for some time after I read it.

All things considered I did enjoy the re-read, but I think the intervening twenty years have taught me enough about myself that the simple story, with its emphasis on destiny and striving towards one’s goals, seems less of a fable and more of a fairy story. The message was still powerful and clear, and I found moments of great clarity in the text – dumpout points when I had to close the book and leave it for a while in order to let the precise wording of a sentence or phrase resonate in my head. However, I did not find the haunting beauty in the storytelling that I remembered, and I was left with a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time in my life, when everything was bright and shiny and destiny seemed like something that I could simply reach out and grasp.

Now, in my early forties, I have a more complicated view of destiny and spirituality, and Coelho’s prose in The Alchemist felt too naive, too simplistic to reflect that. Being aware of omens is all very well, but the book had no shading, no rise and fall, and little in the way of nuanced character development – instead the reader is led by the nose past a sequence of Messages, and especially as a non-Christian, by the end of the book I did feel rather like I’d been beaten over the head with a Bible wrapped in a fluffy black-and-white blanket.

The rest of the group had a mixed response – some loved it, some were ambivalent, and a couple hated it so much they threatened to burn it. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say, I think, that this is a book that hasn’t aged with me.

Next meeting is on January 14th; we are being daring and reading two books this month, because we all have a fortnight off over Christmas so lots of time for reading. (Yeah, right.) The books are The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson (don’t ask) and A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett – we wanted light and non-depressing, and I think we’ve chosen wisely.

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