‘How to Stop Time’ – book review

How to Stop Time
Matt Haig
Canongate Books, 2017

Image from Canongate Books

I’ve had so much to say about this book and dutifully written it all down as I read; however, I wasn’t sure about how exactly to start a review. So I took a trip over to Rachel No Milk‘s wonderful No Space for Milk blog where I knew she had written her thoughts on it. And I too was like Rachel: it not being my usual literary choice, I had no idea whether or not I would like the book; personally, I couldn’t tell if I liked the premise or not – although, such is my admiration for the author, Matt Haig, I knew I wanted to read it. And so, again like Rachel, and as she put it, “I persevered and I loved it so much”.

As I said, I have much to say about precisely why I loved it so much  – but first; a synopsis…

How to Stop Time explores the life of Tom Hazard who, afflicted with a condition which causes him to age extremely slowly, has witnessed many significant events throughout history since his birth in 1581. Tom is not the only person with this condition: across the globe are others – ‘Albatrosses’ or ‘Albas’ (due to the perceived longevity of the lifespan of that bird). In an echo of the X-Men’s mutants vs humans theme – if you happen to read this Matt, I hope this isn’t an insult! – the Albas, having been recruited into a secret society dedicated to their own preservation, work to keep their true identity and condition secret from ordinary humans (‘mayflies’) who, having briefly uncovered the facts, once tortured and experimented on two of these slowly-aging humans. This, the founder of ‘The Albatross Society’ informs Tom, is simply the witch trials “by a different name”:

“This is a war”.

However, the novel is so much more than a rejigging of that human being vs supernatural being narrative. For the upshot of this “unseen war” is that every eight years Tom must relocate to a different moment in time under a new identity, so that no ordinary human has long enough to realise that he has scarcely aged and figure out the secret. This means that he cannot form meaningful relationships with anyone around him as he will only disappear some years down the line – indeed, the number one rule of Society is not to fall in love. Tom’s life since the loss of loved ones and having had to flee his home to escape persecution, has been one of searching for a purpose – to no avail.

And it is upon this narrative thread that Haig deftly and thoughtfully explores philosophical questions about time, love, and what defines a fulfilling life. The beauty of the premise is that a character with several hundred years’ life experience provides many opportunities for commentary on society and its most meaningful aspects, and I suspect that a good deal of readers will find Tom Hazard relatable in at least one sense or another. Therefore, when Tom witnesses Russian composer Tchaikovsky perform at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1891 (then simply known as the ‘Music Hall’), anyone who has ever felt in a slump can empathise with Tom when all he can say is that he “suddenly felt alive again”.

Those familiar with Haig’s best-selling work will doubtless feel familiarities when reading How to Stop Time. The centuries-long life of his protagonist has been one of seeking the most significant reasons to stay alive: the name of Haig’s popular mental health memoir (of sorts). In that book, originally published in 2015, he describes his own battles with depression, anxiety and attendant illnesses/conditions and, being familiar with that material and Haig’s personal struggles, I cannot help but sense reflections on these torturous issues between the lines of this fiction. Although I may be slightly subverting the context of the quotation – read for yourself to judge – I cannot shake lines such as this:

“Could I just keep sailing through life for ever feeling like this?”

I would cautiously suggest that anyone who has battled the seemingly endless void of depression has harboured a thought like this. The truth is, at such a monumental time in my life did I read Reasons to Stay Alive, that I simply cannot read How to Stop Time without drawing links between the two. (Its title, after all comes from Reasons to Stay Alive, wherein we read: “How to stop time: kiss” – and the description of time stopping in this novel is worth the cover price alone.) One of the primary purposes of How to Stop Time though – in my mind – as with Reasons to Stay Alive, is to offer solace to the reader. (Haig told a Guardian interviewer: “I think books can save us and I think they sort of saved me”; and his work certainly has saved many a reader.) Therefore, recalling the quote above, the reader is drawn to the question of why would one want to shake (as I described my inability) such a wonderful line? There are moments, Haig explains to us, wherein we should simply enjoy things for what they are:

“Sometimes you can just look around and be happy right where you are.”

Matt Haig has written a number of novels both for children and teenagers. How to Stop Time is, I think, a more notably adult work, with some disturbing images as we follow Tom’s life through some of the more violent periods of history. However, it is precisely its non-linear narrative – which exposes the reader to these grisly episodes – that merits particular praise. The novel goes back and forth between different centuries, fleshing out the protagonist’s backstory before returning to the present-day and back again. (For what it’s worth, readers familiar with, or keen to look up, the periods of history traversed in the book will be regularly rewarded a wry smile at the retrospective significance of each moment in time.) The breadth and scope covered across both time and globe make this novel feel like the culmination of a life’s work: the synthesis of a lifetime of living and learning.

And yet, a quick glance through the media tells us that Matt Haig is nowhere near finished when it comes to writing. (The Bookseller just yesterday reported a new two-book deal including a “sequel of sorts” to Reasons to Stay Alive and a second adult novel.) Indeed, he is a writer that continues to go from success to success and How to Stop Time is itself a superb achievement which demonstrates superb talent. I encourage anyone and everyone to read the book; hopefully, after having done so, for some, the world will come into alignment.

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