There have been plenty of novels written about time travel. The Time Traveller’s Wife explored it from a more relationship-oriented point of view; Claire North’s exceptional The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was a touching and complex portrayal of friendship across many lifetimes. But when it comes to simply living, nothing can match the elegiac sadness of Matt Haig’s latest novel, How to Stop Time.
I’m a huge Matt Haig fan- I think he’s a fantastic writer who can cut to the heart of human experience in his work (check out these fantastic pieces on him here and here) in a way that not many other writers can, and that rings true in his story, and depiction of Tom Hazard, an exceptionally long-lived man who was born in the Tudor era and ages at a rate that means he’s approaching 500 today- despite only looking like a man in his forties. Tom’s an Alba, part of a society that finds others like him- and demands he moves on every eight years to escape detection; however, when he moves back to London, the place where he grew up and first found love, he finds there’s more to life than by living to avoid notice: there’s loving, there’s appreciating the time you have, and making the most of the time you’ve got- whether you’re immortal or not.
I’m sure everybody’s thought about what it would be like to be immortal at some point in their lives; I have. It’s an exciting, if impossible prospect, after all- but Haig explores what it really means to be so long-lived: to fall in love, for instance, and then lose that love to age (something forbidden by the head of the Alba Society, Hendrich). Tom comes across as a person who, though likeable, is weary of life, having lost Rose, the woman he loved, and his daughter Marion- who, though an Alba, has remained impossible to find over four hundred years. The way that Haig lets history bleed through the cracks of his present-day life, superimposing London over Tudor, and Georgian, London, is both simple and moving: you really believe that he’s lived a long, weary life, and needs something to live for.
Though the present-day plot is relatively simple, that doesn’t matter: Haig’s narrative skips and jumps nimbly between timelines, letting us catch glimpses of past events which then influence how we see the present: Tom’s relationship with his wife, Rose; his voyages to Tahiti; the people he killed on behalf of the Albatross Society. It makes for a fascinating, nuanced- not to mention entertaining, as Tom meets everybody from Shakespeare to F. Scott Fitzgerald- portrayal of time, and of what we do with our lives, especially once Tom starts falling for Camille, the French teacher at his school, which clashes with the Albatross Society’s rules.
Delicate, sweet and thoughtful, How to Stop Time is an in-depth look at the value of life and the importance of love- across time and generations, if necessary. Whether you’re at the beach, or just picking up a book after work, this book needs to be part of your reading list.
Book cover taken from Goodreads.