I came across Mitch Albom’s novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven some six years ago. It was the first novel which I had picked up and read in one sitting for a long time. That was a credit to the moral premises at its heart: all lives are precious and potentially connected, our seemingly insignificant acts can have great and unforeseen consequences and love is never lost or wasted.
I would have bought The Five People You Meet in Heaven for the ethics alone but it was a beautifully crafted novel. Eddie, the principal character, is a flawed, damaged human being but richer for his flaws, more rounded because his virtues are barely visible. Love, longing, human conflict and insight pepper each of the five vignettes which constitute the novel. Heaven is a place where a life is explained by five key people in it, where meaning is given to what was previously beyond understanding. Parable or literal truth, it matters little. The ‘five people’ concept is a mechanism to tell a tale and it does so simply and effectively.
That memory meant that I looked forward with enthusiasm to Albom’s new work. The Time Keeper also has a moral purpose. We are too caught today in the pursuit of time and the inhabitants of the modern world have lost the capacity to be at one with themselves.
Its characters, however, have none of Eddie’s integrity.
Sarah is a gauche, intellectual teenager, estranged from the concerned and caring mother with whom she lives and reminiscing about the absent and unsupportive father, she falls in foredoomed love with the handsome but heartless Ethan. Ethan’s aims in the relationship are clear, even to Sarah but to be wanted in any way is a joy at which she jumps. Ethan’s contempt however becomes apparent to Sarah and she contemplates ending time by killing herself.
Victor, an immensely rich 86 year old businessman, is fatally ill and is reliant on dialysis. His wealth cannot save his life; at least he thought not. He becomes aware of cryogenics, the assertion that the dead can be frozen until such time as a cure for the cause of their death becomes available and he becomes engrossed by the possibility of cheating death, returning to life and extending his time.
The third character, Dor, is living some six thousand years ago before the concept of time had been developed. He however is fascinated by time, by the rising and falling sun, by water dripping into a bowl at a given rate, and wants to master it. He comes into conflict with his power-worshipping childhood friend, Nim, who builds theTowerofBabel. Dor’s early life, his love for Alli, the birth of their children and Alli’s death, are told with some skill and subtlety but Dor then ascends to a celestial cave where his gift of time to humanity, is unveiled as the source of human unhappiness. His punishment is to live eternally and to witness the pain he has created. He has become Father Time but he is fated, hearing the voices of Sarah and Victor, to return to Earth to resolve their dilemmas.
The characters are clichés. The creation of a personal narrative around Father Time and his use as a deus ex machine to rescue them have none of the simplicity or effectiveness of the ‘five people’ parable. Worst of all, the conclusion is utterly predictable. For this reviewer at least, the poverty of Albom’s latest creation forces a re-evaluation of his earlier work.
The above article was first published in Lothian Life on 25 November 2012: http://www.lothianlife.co.uk/2012/11/the-time-keeper-by-mitch-albom-a-review/