Thursday 21 September 2017

How To Stop Time, Matt Haig

Haig’s latest offering focuses on the life of Tom Hazard, a seemingly middle aged man who has in fact been alive since 1581. He has returned now to London as a history teacher and walks the streets remembering how they used to look, where his times with Rose, his only love, were spent. During her life he was forced to part from her, fearing that his barely perceptible aging would put her at risk as it had done his mother. He has spent the intervening years searching for their daughter Marion who also has anageria, a condition that makes them age fifteen times slower than your average human. You would be forgiven for thinking that they would not need to hide in the modern world. We don’t drown innocent women to test if they are witches after all, but you only have to turn on the news to see that anybody different, other, is still vilified. This makes the novel feel relevant rather than just a far-fetched story.

Tom fends for himself for centuries before discovering the Albatross Society in the late nineteenth century. This discovery follows him finally finding a doctor who believes in his condition and does not want him institutionalized. Much to Tom’s horror the doctor mysteriously dies shortly after their meeting. The Albatross Society is for people with anageria, the Albas, as they are known, a group suspicious of the rest of the world. In order to ensure their safety they kill anyone they consider to pose a risk to their anonymity. The Society is headed by Hendrich, who is unwavering in his belief that the rules – never to fall in love, and to create a new life every eight years (the price the Albas pay for him to arrange this for them is the occasional assassination job), is for the best. Tom begins to question the truth of this, but were he to leave he would become a target. There’s also the belief that if anyone can find Marion it will be Hendrich. Whether or not he can be trusted is another matter. The reader is made to feel for Tom, stuck in a seemingly impossible situation, unable to tell anyone outside the Society the truth. His loneliness is heartbreaking.

The storyline may sound a touch convoluted when laid out like this, but it reads easily and although the narrative hops around in time it is not difficult to follow. There’s also the odd light-hearted cameo from the likes of Shakespeare. It’s a novel that has a good balance between the humorous and serious. One theme which also appeared in Haig’s bestseller The Humans is the importance of our mortality in giving our lives meaning and a sense of urgency. This combined with musings on what makes life really worth living, and the need for love no matter the potential for pain, means his books always pull on the heartstrings and make you think. Not my favourite of his works, but worth a read (and I’ll certainly be reading the follow-up I’ve heard rumours of).

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