For a number of years, Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven has been one of those novels I have been intending to read. It was the title of the novel that first drew me to it in a bookshop (I am generally interested in conceptions of the afterlife), and ever since then I have often taken it down from a shelf in Waterstones, read the first couple of sentences, and put it back in its place. After passing around a list of wanted books in preparation for my birthday this year, I received The Five People You Meet in Heaven as a gift and this month read the novel over a couple of days. The wait was well worth it.
As the title of the novel suggests, The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a story of passing from this life to the next. Eddie, an 83-year-old maintenance man at a fairground on Ruby Pier, dies in a tragic accident as he attempts to save the life of a young girl named Amy or Annie. After death, he finds himself in heaven and is told by the Blue Man, a figure from his past, that he will meet five people whose lives on earth were in some way connected to his own, of which the Blue Man is the first. Each of these people has a different lesson to teach Eddie, and after learning from all five of them, he comes to understand the meaning and value of his life.
Albom’s conception of heaven is an interesting one. Rather than the static paradisal garden frequently imagined, Albom’s heaven is a series of progressive stages through which souls must pass in order to appreciate the meaning and significance of their terrestrial lives. In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, souls are not perfected in the course of earthly lives, but instead continue their education in the world that lies beyond. There is something incredibly hopeful in this notion, suggesting as it does that our destination in the afterlife is not a place of reward or punishment determined by the good or bad we do on earth. Rather, heaven is a therapeutic process, a detailed dissection of a life with the goal of revelation.
The visionary power of Albom’s writing is in evidence throughout the novel, most beautifully captured in the colours that accompany the different stages of Eddie’s journey through the afterlife. ‘The sky was a misty pumpkin shade,’ we are told during the initial passage from life to death, ‘then a deep turquoise, then a bright lime’, later changing ‘to grapefruit yellow, then a forest green, then a pink that Eddie momentarily associated with, of all things, cotton candy.’ When Eddie moves to a later stage of heaven, there is at first nothing more than ‘a pure and silent white, as noiseless as the deepest snowfall at the quietest sunrise.’ Descriptions like these serve to jolt the reader from reality and perfectly convey the otherworldliness at work in Eddie’s spiritual progression.
An uplifting story with a comforting message at its heart, The Five People You Meet in Heaven offers consolation to those who fear their lives may have no meaning. We see this not only in Albom’s moving and considered treatment of an everyday maintenance man, but also in the care with which he has constructed and revealed the significance of Eddie’s life in the lessons he learns from his spiritual guides. Indeed, Albom writes in the dedication of the novel to his uncle Edward Beitchman that the version of heaven represented in the book is ‘a wish, in some ways, that [his] uncle, and others like him — people who felt unimportant here on earth — realize, finally, how much they mattered and how they were loved.’ Ours is not a world in which everyone does or can feel that their lives are of importance, but anyone who reads The Five People You Meet in Heaven will come to believe that there is always value to be found, however out of sight it might at first appear.