Title: How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Harper Avenue
Release Date: February 6th, 2018
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Sci-fi, Contemporary
Page Count: 336 pages
I think every one of us has, at one point or another, wished our lives were longer. That we could take the distance between one moment to the next and give it a nice, long pull. And when you think of your time in this world not in terms of decades, but hundreds, maybe even thousands, the possibilities can seem endless. You can witness hundreds of years of technological advances. Scour every corner of the globe for its natural and human wonders. Read and watch and play every piece of creative media out there. Sink yourself into your passions without the threat of a ticking clock looming over your head.
Well, Matt Haig has heard your musings and replied with an old, but sensible, adage: Be careful what you wish for.
Tom Hazard is weary. Living for hundreds of years is not sexy or liberating; it becomes the same pattern repeated over and over. His life has been a long stretch of loneliness punctuated by moments of happiness, then grief and hardships, and stretches and
stretches of gray nothingness. Now he just feels lost. Lost in the maelstrom of identities he had worn over the years.
Tom’s elongated life span is not presented as a curse or a feat of magic, but rather a very unique medical condition, which I found refreshingly different from other stories with similar premises–he’s not cursed or chosen, he just is. Those with the condition are known collectively as “albas,” named after albatrosses that were once thought, mistakenly, to live a very long time. Their secrets and identities are protected with the help of the Albatross Society (which is kind of like a union), founded by a man called Hendrich.
Hendrich is an interesting figure. I found him manipulative, arrogant, and divisive. He says the right things, in a long, winding, charming kind of way, but there’s something hollow about it all. And I love that sense of wrongness in a character. Unfortunately, I found all the other side characters, especially Camille (Tom’s love-interest-to-be) and the famous historical figures Tom encounters, lacking. Though they intrigued me, I felt like there were many more layers to them that we never got a chance to uncover, and that’s a bit of a shame.
The chapters alternates between flashbacks to Tom’s earlier years–from medieval England to the Roaring Twenties–and the present. A simple but introspective prose makes it very easy to empathize with the main character and I quite loved his sense of humour. It’s not the laugh-out-loud kind, but a wry, quiet one that threads through the narrative with ease.
One of the most notable things about the book is that it’s chock full of quotable lines. Ones you would frame and plaster all over your walls. Matt Haig has a talent for expressing sentiments that should feel trite and annoying but end up being very moving. There’s such an unabashed honesty to his writing that I couldn’t help but love.
7.0 was the review score that was hovering in my mind when I was about a chapter away from the end. Despite the lovely writing, I couldn’t deny that the book had its share of flaws–a somewhat disappointing plot, a climax that felt rushed, and characters that felt unfulfilled.
But then I encountered this passage:
And just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? 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 love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?
This paragraph knocked me breathless and frozen for what seemed like eternity. I imagined myself doing this–unshackling myself from all my fears and doubts and hurts–and the possibilities that I glimpsed sent chills down my spine and tears to my eyes. Like the rest of the book, there’s a simplicity to the words. But the best truths are the simplest ones that you scorned in favour of the cool and flashy kinds. And I realized that’s what makes this book so special. Matt Haig overturns the recesses of the human mind and shines a light on things that we all know peripherally but have never fully examined. One powerful paragraph can’t erase all the criticisms I have, but it can damn well mute them.
The blurb makes the book sound like a romcom with a scifi bent, but that’s a shallow–and frankly, wrong–interpretation; those expecting a wild, passionate romance between Tom and Camille will be disappointed (their relationship doesn’t even kindle until near the end). The story is rather more about one man’s journey to find himself. And this man is you and me–all of us living in a world that feels alien and terrifying. This is a story about life and how we choose to live it, whether we have five or fifty or five hundred years ahead of us.
How to Stop Time is a prime example of a comfort book. One that gently dares you to rise above your fears and take a chance, and just see what happens.
I think this is one that I will end up revisiting many times in the future.