A Reader Reviews: Mitch Albom’s ‘The Five People You Meet in Heaven’

'The Five People You Meet in Heaven'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2019

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.

A Reader Reviews: Alice Broadway’s ‘Ink’

'Ink'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

Ever a thieving magpie, it was a glint of burning copper that attracted me to Alice Broadway’s Ink. Intricately woven foliage and feathers shone out from the cover in a delightful Warwick bookshop and I knew without question that I simply had to buy it. The recently published sequel Spark is similarly shiny, with birds and branches picked out this time in a deep metallic red. When I came across it a few months ago (and bought it, of course), the book reminded me of Ink and prompted me to move it to the top of my reading pile.

Broadway’s debut novel introduces us to the brave Leora Flint, a talented artist who lives in a place called Saintstone. She belongs to a community in which every detail of a person’s life — the good and the bad — is tattooed on the skin for all to see, making privacy impossible and deception easily uncovered. After death, the body is flayed and the skin turned into a book that functions as both afterlife and soul. The book is weighed so that its fitness for remembrance can be judged — if it is deemed to tell the story of a worthy life, the deceased will be remembered through the preservation of the book, but if the pages show instead a life of wickedness and evil, the book will be incinerated and the life and soul forgotten.

Saintstone’s customs and traditions are under threat from a group of exiles known as blanks, whose skin is empty and unmarked and therefore hides what can only be the grievous sins they have committed. The idea of blankness draws revulsion from the people of Leora’s home and especially from their charismatic leader Mayor Longsight, who is convinced that the blanks are plotting war against Saintstone and that there are traitors in their midst who must be rooted out and punished. It is in these circumstances that Leora must come to terms with the death of her father. Initially believing him to have been a good and honest man, she comes to learn that he was keeping secrets and that his book now runs the risk of being destroyed. Leora must work quickly to exonerate her father and ensure that he is not consigned to the oblivion of being forgotten.

In this first novel of an already successful series, Broadway skilfully establishes the world of Saintstone and its systems of belief. She raises important questions about the stories through which belief is formulated and expressed, both those that seek to capture something of our own identities and those that claim to have the measure of our neighbours. The narrative itself is interspersed with stories that are used by the authorities of Saintstone to uphold the central tenets of its creed — the inked are good; the blanks are bad. By displaying these stories against narration of Leora’s growing struggle with her faith, Broadway encourages us to question the moral certainty that often blinds us when it comes to hearing other versions of a story. How can we be sure that the stories we believe in are a fair and balanced record of our lives and our society? Might there be other ways of telling them that make the villains look like heroes?

Broadway offers us in Ink an astute examination of the socially constructed nature of morality and the way in which the border separating right from wrong is blurred and open to abuse. She creates in Leora Flint a timely model of the citizen who is jolted from the certainty of childhood and comes to learn that we must always question what society has told us to be true. For the young adult audience of Ink, who may well have started to interrogate the stories they themselves believe in, this is a crucially important lesson, but it is arguably even more important for any older readers who have forgotten how to challenge the accepted wisdom and instead preserve it as the only form of truth.