Book Review: Matt Haig's How to Stop Time
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The first rule is that you don’t fall in love...otherwise you will slowly lose your mind.
So decrees Hendrich, patriarch of The Albatross Society, a support group, of sorts, for people who have lived a very long time and are likely to live a long while more. Members of the society, albas for short, have a rare and undocumented condition. They age very slowly, at about 1/15th the rate of normal people who they refer to as mayflies.
The second rule of the society is that you are not permitted to leave.
Tom Hazard was born on March 3rd, 1581, and he’s still going strong. In fact, he’s looking good for a four hundred and thirty-nine year old. You might guess he looked just over forty. Tom did fall in love, once, when he was young, really young, but his stubborn youthfulness set Tudor tongues wagging. Witch-hunters hounded his family and sentenced Tom to a lonely and peripatetic existence.
‘I’ve been in love only once in my life,’ says Tom, speaking of his darling Rose. It’s such an appealing and romantic idea, isn’t it? The idea of one true love held fast forever.
It’s a sweet idea, but the reality is terror itself. To be faced with all those lonely years after. To exist when the point has gone.
Tom lost Rose to the plague in 1623.
I pleaded with God, I asked and begged and bargained, but God did not bargain. God was stubborn and deaf and oblivious. And she died and I lived and a hole opened up, dark and bottomless, and I fell down and kept falling for centuries.
Tom fell until the 1890s, when he was recruited by The Albatross Society. Every seven years, Hendrich, who made his vast fortune selling tulips, arranges a new identity, a safe location, a decent job, a whole new life, for each Alba. In return, every seven years, they owe him a favour. As we meet Tom, he is about to begin a cosy job in a London secondary school where he can teach history with all the passion of one who has actually lived through it. It might not be quite as glamorous as his stint as a pianist at Ciro’s in Paris but Tom wants to return to London. The favour Hendrich demands, however, is more than Tom had bargained for.
Matt Haig is a British novelist, forty-two in mayfly years, who writes a speculative style of fiction. He throws huge ‘what if...’ balls into the air and allows his imagination explore the answers. In How to Stop Time Haig explores why the idea of time has the power both to comfort and to terrify us.
It is one thing having the imagination, the free spirit, to dream up a story like this one; it’s quite another to be credible. Tom Hazard speaks to us in the first person and is so convincingly drawn that, by the final chapter, I was starting to wonder whether Matt Haig really is four hundred and thirty-nine. That might explain why he is so very wise.
Honesty works. Well, honesty gets you locked up in a psych ward. But sometimes it works.
Haig writes with truthful simplicity that sucks you in, a searing honesty that hurts you. His tone has a compelling urgency as if the only thing that will save him is to have you read his words. He holds you in a vice of empathy so that it is almost impossible to look away until he finally, with tremendous grace, releases his grip.
The narrative flits between Elizabethan, Victorian and modern England, to Jazz-age Paris and Los Angeles, all the while reminding us that times change but people really don’t. Haig writes in the acknowledgements that he had great fun writing this book. He describes the experience as ‘time travel and a therapy session in one, minus the psychiatrist fees and the DeLorean.’ Haig got a kick out of Hazard’s chance encounters with Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Captain Cook. For me, the historical celebrity cameos tread a narrow tightrope of credibility. I found them superfluous and a distraction from what was already a far-fetched plot. Nonetheless, I can see how they will add comedy to a movie adaptation. The book has already been optioned by StudioCanal with Benedict Cumberbatch expected to take the starring role.
Haig is perhaps best known for Reasons to Stay Alive, an account of his own depression and his determination to survive. The book struck a chord with readers and remained in the UK Top 10 bestseller list for 46 weeks. While Haig seeks to shed the title of ‘Mr. Depression,’ it’s clear that he still endeavors to share the lessons he has learned. He doesn’t shirk from preaching, just a little, while he entertains.
I like that he writes plainly. He has a message, a hard-earned truth he wants to propogate and he doesn’t try to hide it in metaphor – he lays it all out for you so that this is really a self-help book, a coping strategy, in the palatable guise of a good story.
How to Stop Time asks what if you could live without fear:
If I could live without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over? If I could live without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that tomorrow?...
In a recent Guardian interview, Haig spoke evangelically about reading as an escape route. ‘I think books can save us,’ he said, ‘and I think they sort of saved me.’
It seems almost a prerequisite of good books that they leave you feeling sad. Here is a good book that will buoy you up on a wave of optimism. In How to Stop Time, Matt Haig gives you reasons, not just to stay alive, but to feel happy to be alive, to have hope and to feel brave.
This is a sweet book. It is funny and it is light and it has the potential to make yours a better life.