“The Next Person You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2018)

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“This is a story about a woman named Annie, and it begins at the end, with Annie falling from the sky.”

I rally against sequels a lot. More often than not they serve as a way for someone to cash in on a previously great story with a slightly worse story that wasn’t really needed. Of course there are exceptions – Toy Story 2 and Shrek 2, for example – but it’s a good rule of thumb. Sometimes we have to let stories standalone. The trouble is, of course, no story really is told in a vacuum. It links to thousands of others. Mitch Albom has used this technique to the full in the beautiful sequel to the truly excellent The Five People You Meet In Heaven.

In the original book, we focus on Eddie, an elderly war veteran who dies saving the life of a little girl. He ascends to the afterlife where he is met by five people who impacted his life and teach him a lesson he must learn from it. At the end of his novel, he takes his place in the queue to meet the girl he saved. This is her story.

Annie has just got married, but the marriage is doomed as within hours, she and her husband Paulo are in a devastating hot air balloon crash. Annie feels herself go under the anaesthetic when she gets to hospital, but she wakes up in the afterlife, meeting the first of her five people. She now undertakes the same journey as Eddie once did, meeting five people who changed her life, including the doctor who reattached her hand after it was lost in the accident, her strong, protective mother, and Eddie himself.

There aren’t many books that bring a tear to my eye, but this one certainly did. The original tale is one of my favourite books and while I’d not held out much hope, I think I’d always been curious to know what had happened to the little girl. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the idea of sonder, that feeling that everyone you meet has their own story and a life as complex as your own, but you only get to play a part in a few of them. This book, and the previous, play that up to the max. Annie is a sweet person, not perfect, but more courageous than she lets herself believe and the sort of woman I would like to be friends with. It’s nice to see Eddie again, less grizzled than we first knew him. The story is by its very nature quite tragic, but like all the best books, hope still shines through.

That’s always what goodness boils down to – hope. There is always hope. Belief in an afterlife in itself is a hopeful act, and while I’m not religious and don’t really think there is anything after “this”, there are worse things to encounter on the other side than five people with important messages.

A beautiful, powerful story. I love it.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Enduring Love” by Ian McEwan (1997)

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Love can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.

Love can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.

“The beginning is simple to mark.”

My sister bought me this book without having any idea what it was. It was in a shop where a particular stand had all its books wrapped in brown paper, with keywords written on the outside to give a taster of what was inside. I believe these are done all over the place now, presumably to counteract the notion of judging books by their covers. Thus, it was a surprise to both of us as to what the book actually was inside the packaging. Fortunately, she knows me well, and the keywords aligned to give me a book I enjoyed, by an author I’ve read a couple of times before, Ian McEwan.

In this story, Joe Rose has his entire life changed by one, single moment. While he and his partner of many years, Clarissa, are having a picnic, they are interrupted by an out-of-control hot air balloon, with a man stuck in the ropes. Without thinking, Joe runs to help, along with several other people who happen to have been nearby, including farmhands and a passing doctor. The men try and bring the hot air balloon down and save the boy in the basket, but the winds are too strong and one by one they let go, until just one man is left clinging on, until the dreadful moment where he falls and dies.

Joe is overwhelmed and while checking the body on the off chance for its survival, he is followed by another one of the rescuers, Jed Parry, who asks him to pray with him. Joe politely declines the offer and returns to Clarissa, but later that night, Joe gets a phone call from Parry, informing him that he loves him, and he knows the feeling the reciprocated.

Thus begins a tale of pure obsession, as Parry continually tries to contact Joe, tells him how much he loves him, and begs him to stop playing games, leave Clarissa, and admit his returning feelings out loud. After the phone calls come letters, and then Parry is outside the flat at all times. As much as Parry is obsessed, Joe too becomes fixated on Parry, wondering what exactly he wants and how to get rid of him. But how much of it is real, and how much of it is in Joe’s head? As tensions rise, Joe has to struggle with the loss of his rationality, sanity and Clarissa while Parry continues his renlentless pursuit of the object of his affections.

McEwan often seems to like taking a very small moment and dissecting it to its absolute fullest. The first two chapters, indeed, are very minutely detailed. The first spends a number of pages discussing the moment that Joe and Clarissa first notice the balloon, and the second seems to be almost entirely about the fall of the dead man. While this is not exactly a fast book by any means, the pacing works for it and it’s so tense because of it. You can almost hear Joe’s mind unspooling as he struggles to cope with this sudden interruption to his daily routine.

I don’t know if the book is has ever really been considered a thriller, but it definitely is one, keeping you on tenterhooks throughout as you start to wonder which one is the more deranged, Joe or Parry. The novel is mostly told from Joe’s viewpoint, but one chapter slips into the third person to detail Clarissa’s day, and another four take the form of letters to Joe – three from Parry, one Clarissa.

Ian McEwan is a great writer, who takes ordinary people and thrusts them into difficult situations, as all good books should, and this is definitely one that has something wonderfully haunting about it and will linger in your mind for some time.