To begin this post, I’ll just say that I’m not sure whether this is a children’s book, a teenage novel, or a work aimed at adults. I’m guessing that it is perhaps all of these, as the larger-than-average font and use of child protagonist suggests the former (and perhaps the second option too), but at times the subject matter hits for the older reader. Anyway- I read this a few weeks back, and have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by it. I read Gaarder’s sublime ‘The Christmas Mystery’ every Advent for a good 4 or 5 years when I was growing up, but haven’t yet read his most famous work ‘Sophie’s World’, and so was unaware just how good a philosopher and thinker this writer is. If this book is aimed at children, then I think that he deserves even more credit, as the way he manages to get the subject of death and the afterlife across to younger readers is incredibly sensitively and well done.
The short book centres on a girl named Cecilia who is ill in bed over Christmas with what seems to be cancer of some kind (this is never explicitly said, although it is mentioned that she has lost her hair). While she is here, she is visited by Ariel, an angel who wishes to know more about what it is to be human and how it feels to have a body of flesh and blood. Thorough is questions, the reader wonders with Cecilia just quite how you can actually explain what taste, smell and touch are like to someone who has never experienced these things, and what it really is to be alive. In exchange, the girl learns from Ariel about God and his creation, and though the discourse we learn that the God of the book’s reality is a flawed character. However, the most important lessons seem to be on the nature of life itself and what it like for both an individual with a terminal illness and for their family as they wait together- and apart- for the inevitable. Through her friendship with Ariel, Cecilia is able to carry out her last wishes of playing in the snow for the last time, using her new skis and toboggan, and seeing her best friend for the last time, but is also able to face death without fear, knowing what is on the other side and being guided there by her guardian figure.
This may make the book sound somewhat morbid and depressing but strangely it is far from it. I did initially have reservations with reading the book, and indeed it took me to read and re-read the blurb on the back of the book several times in the charity shop I had it from on more than one occasion before I finally decided to go back and buy it. However, I’m glad that I did get it, as it is a charming book, told with very little sentimentality and not purposefully trying to depress or upset the reader; uplifting and positive are two words I would use to describe it. Although, I did find myself fighting back the tears when the end arrived, and it is perhaps an emotionally sapping story if it is properly engaged with.
I enjoyed this book for the messages and discussions that take place within it, as well as the way in which it makes you view life and faith slightly differently, but it would perhaps be equally appropriate for helping someone through a bereavement- whether his may be an adult or a child. Recommended, certainly, but prepare to be surprised by both the books depth and your own vulnerability to emotion.