Cracking down on the relativity of time, Matt Haig meanders between centuries and regions, drawing conclusions about the modern society and highlighting the precious things that never change – the ones that could help us stop time for a split second.
Is there anybody who never fantasised about staying alive forever? In our presuppositions, it appears to be an unattainable, godlike power. All these things we could do that we couldn’t fit into just one lifetime seem to leave plenty of space for reinvention, but as Matt Haig proves in his multi-layered novel How To Stop Time, the never-ending transformation could cast us out just as easily.
For Tom Hazard, a 439-year-old with a middle-aged man apparition, the time that stretches ahead without changing him much has become a curse. He’s semi-immortal; his life is a constant chase for unattainable happiness, or rather an escape from the loss that he experienced and other people who can’t comprehend his state. To save himself from the pain, he lives by one rule: don’t get attached to anything you have, don’t ever fall in love. If only loneliness of watching the centuries go by didn’t wear him down before he could spot it! His desperation for a cure brought him nothing but the attention of a mysterious Albatross Society; having received an offer of protection he couldn’t decline, he started cooperating with a group set up for protection of the people with his rare condition, led by enigmatic Heinrich. But are they genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of other albas, as the people who age at a slower rate call themselves between each other? Tom starts to question the order of his world as he’s forced to move again; he takes up a teaching job in London to change up his environment. The city brings him more painful memories that he can handle, but also the opportunities to break away from his past and finally change his life.
Haig moulds words into whatever he wants them to become: he’s got a flair for razor-sharp wit that he proved with his young adult fiction (The Humans, for instance), and a gift for packing an emotional punch into the shortest chapters and simplest words – his memoirs How To Stay Alive and Notes From a Nervous Planet are hard-hitting and healing at once. With How to Stop Time, he proves his ability to compose lyrical romance that flows like a ballad and stops the clock for a split second when we lean over the pages of his novel.
It might be difficult to get used to his uncompromising earnestness at the beginning, but once you dip your toes into the waves of pure warmth and genuine humanity it brings, there’s nothing to hold you back from drifting towards the heart of the story. In a society that trivialises romance and thrives on cynicism, it’s tough to write something that’s so affecting and believable, but the author convinces us to stay with him as he unfolds the overlapping stories of love and loss until we can’t help watching his characters succumb to the inevitability of the future.
Our fictional hero had a lot of time to think about the things that truly matter; he knows that people hardly ever learn from the past, but never ceases to be surprised how easily they fall for fairy-tales that have always been deceiving them in one form or another. Be it the witchcraft accusations or prejudice, or the perpetual chase for material things – he’s seen it all, and he’s in a position to see through the blinding light of the progress that humanity apparently made. In a contemplative airport scene, when Tom gets ready to jet off for a mission he owes the society leader, he contemplates the modern society in a simple, yet poignant statement. “(…) We are made to feel poor on thirty thousand pounds a year. To feel poorly travelled if we have only been to ten other countries. To feel old if we have a wrinkle. To feel ugly if we aren’t photoshopped and filtered,” he muses, summarising the implications of the fabricated perfection in the modern world on one’s spirits.
Without a doubt, the adventure arc that the writer created for the character and the world he built around it are the most exciting parts of the story. The narrative doesn’t follow a linear structure, enriching the timeline rooted in the modern world with flashbacks to the past. The author enriched these vignettes with famous characters from the times long gone: the destiny crosses Tom’s path with Shakespeare, Captain Cook or Zelda and Francis Scott Fitzgerald. Even though Haig isn’t over-diligent when it comes to period details, he still uses these lovely interactions as a signpost of the changing times, balancing the act of maintaining believable accuracy and creating a convincing, fresh portrayal. The “jobs” albas go on, the Mafia-esque secrecy of the Albatross Society, and a one-man discovery mission intertwined with the search of self pulls the reader in, immersing us in the inventive mystery that ties together the centuries that passed by and the miles that the protagonist travelled.
The genuine radiance of the story and a stirring journey that it creates for the protagonist sits us down on an emotional rollercoaster for a couple of hours and takes us on a journey across time and space, teaching us a few lessons on the way. Meditative at times, sometimes soul-destroying, often brazenly questioning, but always with a hint of hope that hovers over the future, How to Stop Time is a book that lifts the heavy weight of the times we live in from our shoulders.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig is available on Amazon.