This was one of those books that I felt I had been hearing about for months before I actually read it. Reviews championed it as an example of ‘up-lit’, it was original, it was about history and what it meant to be human. The film rights were bought and Benedict Cumberbatch lined up to play the lead before publication even occurred. A new edition was released with illustrations by Chris Riddell. Plus, the author is Matt Haig who not only wrote The Radleys but is also someone I follow keenly on Twitter. I picked up How To Stop Time with the expectation and the intention of finding a new all-time favourite book. Somehow or other though, I didn’t. Despite all of the things that I should have loved about the story – time travel, Tudor England, mysterious societies, gallops across history – I finished with a feeling of indifference. Was it over-hype? Or was it something else?
The book’s hero is Tom Hazard and he has ‘a condition’. He is very old, old ‘old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old’. He is over four hundred years old but looks to be in his mid-forties. He is an ‘alba’, or ‘albatross’ while the vast majority of the human race are ‘mayflies’. Now living in present day London, Tom is living the life of a history teacher while occasionally carrying out suspicious odd jobs for Heinrich, leader of the Albatross club, an organisation which apparently exists to keep albas safe and out of sight. In the sixteenth century, Tom had to keep a step ahead of witch-finders. These days, it’s the science research labs who are the bogey man. But who is the real enemy?
A key problem with this kind of concept is that it has been done so many times before. As a teenager, I watched (and guffawed over) Highlander with my Dad. Seeing Tom flee from his home because of ill-informed superstition is well-trodden territory in mainstream fiction. His tragic love story with apple-seller Rose also felt a little colour-by-numbers – it may be different once acted out on the big screen by Mr Cumberbatch, but I did not feel the heartstrings twang particularly when the two are forced to part. Another issue is perhaps that I read and loved The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August not so very many years ago and although the premise is not identical, the material felt very familiar.
How To Stop Time felt highly mannered – while Harry August did have a focused conflict, Haig concentrates the action on Tom’s meanderings and musings across London and further afield and does not feel the need for greater forward momentum. Tom comments on how the history of London ‘could be charted by the steady and consistent decline of visible faeces in public places’. He thinks about the irony of how white teeth are de la mode these days when in his youth, ‘pale-faced ladies had artificially blackened teeth to simulate the mark of luxury that was sugar-induced decay’. He tells us that ‘if you live long enough you realise that every proven fact is later disproved and then proven again’. On another page it’s that ‘the longer you live, the more you realise that nothing is fixed. Everyone will become a refugee if they live long enough’. It just feels … predictable. And giving William Shakespeare a cameo appearance did not assist with this.
Reflecting on all of this, I realised that the reason why I follow Matt Haig on Twitter so keenly is that I find a lot of what he has to say, particularly on the field of mental health, to be inspiring. The man has a really good turn of phrase. His object with How To Stop Time was, I think, to package some of this positive perspective. So it is hardly surprising that it is a story less about plot than it is about his perspective. A good friend read this and really enjoyed it, commenting that reading this had made her feel more content about mortality. As Tom struggles to find a place for himself, to combat the loneliness of a life that is necessarily without roots, he is in many ways an expression of the passage from Ecclesiastes ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted’. Those words are very popular at humanist funeral services – it is about accepting the span of our lives on this earth and treasuring the years that are granted to us.
While I can’t claim to have been gripped by the story, I continue to admire Haig as a writer and all-round human. How To Stop Time reads like an over-expanded short story, snippets of a great idea which have been stretched to fraying. Not enough world-building to be true sci-fi, too little character development for romance, it felt more like a thought experiment. The biggest plothole for me was Tom Hazard himself, who seems to be a clear proxy for Haig rather than a character in his own right, making it difficult to truly suspend disbelief. I was never quite able to escape within the narrative, leaving this one of my biggest recent reading disappointments.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Canongate Books on July 6th 2017
Genres: Fiction, General
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