I first came across Matt Haig through his book: Reasons to stay alive. The book provides a insight into Haig’s journey with depression and anxiety which he suffered between the ages of 24 and 32. Reasons… is not really a self-help book but more an intensely individual, creative response to a period of profound crisis.
How to Stop Time is completely different yet equally fascinating.
The first thing we discover about Tom Hazard, the protagonist of Matt Haig’s new novel, “How to Stop Time,” is that he is very, very old. He is old, he tells us, “in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old.” Born in France in 1581, he is fast approaching his 440th birthday. However you wouldn’t know this just by his appearance. Tom has a rare but not unique condition called anageria. Meaning tom ages at a rate of roughly one year for every 15 ordinary human years. Although Tom lives life at the same pace as everyone else it would seem that “only a decade passes between the death of Napoleon and the first man on the moon.” Immune to almost all human diseases, and avoiding a violent death Tom can expect to live to be 950. With 4 centuries of life under his belt, he is only just approaching middle age. And like many middle-aged men, he appears to be suffering something of a midlife crisis.
This is not a new idea however, in recent years Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” have both cleverly played with the idea of lives and relationships outside of ordinary human time.
Unlike Niffenegger and Atkinson and Haig’s other popular novel ‘The humans’, ‘How to stop time’ is melancholic and almost saddening.
For Tom longevity is a curse, leading to loneliness at a young age. His unchanging appearance arouses suspicion and hostility within each community he lives. His mother is condemned as a witch and accusations dog his beloved wife Rose and his daughter Marion, who was born with the same condition. Tom knows he must leave them for their safety and his own sanity. In the 400 years since Rose’s death he has drifted around the world, unwilling to settle and unable to achieve sustainable happiness. His only driving motive to live, is the chance to reunite with Marion. When he is approached by the Albatross society, lead by hedonistic Hendrich Pietersen who claims the ‘Mayflies’ (short lived creatures: ordinary humans) armed with superstition and science are out to harm the ‘Albas’ (the Albatrosses, a long lived bird: Tom and others). Tom hopes Hendrich, the mastermind will be able to help track her down.
The resulting novel, is part love story, part thriller, although not quite enough of either.
Almost 450 years is a lot to squeeze into 325 pages, and Haig takes the reader on a pit stop tour of some of the highlights of Tom’s life, including Shakespeare, Captain Cook and Zedla Fitzgerald. The novel flits between his past life and modern day life in London where Tom is ironically a history teacher. With the book split into 5 parts, the novel is a journey through time from past-present-future from 3 different generations. The present day introduces another love interest at Tom’s high school and Haig’s observant eye on contemporary life remains. “There is only the present. Just as every object on earth contains similar and interchanging atoms, so every fragment of time contains aspects of every other.”
Tom’s dialogue dominates the majority of the novel and despite half a millennium of wisdom, his daughter Marion provides the majority of the true wisdom, quoting Montaigne. ‘She nodded slowly, as if Montaigne himself was also in the room. “He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears” ‘. The romance found within the novel comes in many different forms. Father and daughter love, romantic love and self love all combine to form a key underlying theme within the novel.
I would have liked a more in-depth progression and description into the Albatross Society, establishing Hendrich’s and Agnes’s characters as more than plot devices, and really gets into the nuts and bolts of how these Albatrosses can stand being uprooted every eight years for brand-new lives, all in the name of survival. The potential for social media and ever-present state surveillance to completely destroy the Albatross Society by unraveling the members’ alibis is only hinted at when Tom starts to use Facebook. But would provide an interesting and relevant touch to the novel.
How to Stop Time is a bighearted, wildly original novel about losing and finding yourself, the inevitability of change, and how with enough time to learn, we just might find happiness and love.