How to Stop Time
By Matt Haig
“That’s the thing with time, isn’t it? It’s not all the same. Some days – some years – some decades – are empty. There is nothing to them. It’s just flat water. And then you come across a year, or even a day, or an afternoon. And it is everything. It is the whole thing.” Tom
Caring about those around us is undervalued by our society. It’s not fashionable, and it should come more naturally than it sometimes does. Empathy is seemingly not a commodity that is valued in the modern age, yet it is an essential ingredient of a good novel. A writer’s skill is defined entirely by their ability to make us care for their characters; making them relatable enough to teach us something about ourselves. Few writers working these days offer a more empathetic view of the human condition than Matt Haig.
His last book, bestselling memoir Reasons to Stay Alive (2015), showed with heart-breaking honesty his struggle with depression, but also offered an unexpected amount of comfort and hope, mixed with genuinely funny wry advice. Its message of “Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.” feels like it could have been the inspiration for his newest novel, How to Stop Time.
Tom Hazard looks like a normal middle-aged man; however, he suffers from a rare condition which slows down the ageing process, and is in fact 439 years old. He is an ‘Alba’, and must follow the rules of their secret organisation; change identities and locations every 8 years; never fall in love. Oh, and occasionally murder those who threaten to expose them. Toms latest identity is as a history teacher in a London comprehensive, taken with the idea of using his knowledge and wisdom for educational purposes. He meets intoxicating fellow teacher Camille, but is mentally held prisoner by the ideas of old acquaintance Heidrich and the memories of his former lives.
How to Stop Time’s message, while lovely, can neatly be summed by the Reasons to Stay Alive quote earlier; It is in the telling that this novel finds much of its power.
Always an old soul, Haig writes with wisdom, clear eyed honesty and a sharp intellect, providing wonderful thoughtful observations on nearly every page. “Music doesn’t get in. Music is already in. Music simply uncovers what is there, makes you feel emotions that you didn’t necessarily know you had inside you, and runs around waking them all up. A rebirth of sorts.” Pick almost any paragraph from this book and there will be a turn of phrase, an image, an idea that leaps off the page and gives you a hug. The overall affect is beguiling.
My chief complaint with the novel is that it feels like there should be more of it. Haig has found the perfect character and plot for his voice but it feels like the world he created is underexplored, a vehicle for his observations on the human condition. Nothing wrong with that at all, but there is real potential in the idea and wouldn’t be surprised if there was a sequel in a few years’ time.
Matt Haig is quietly becoming one of the main voices of his generation. Reasons to Stay Alive, which feels like it was written just for you personally, remains his masterpiece. How to Stop Time doesn’t have the same power but is written with such empathy and understanding it deserves to find a wide audience.
Haig’s main strength is his huge heart. His empathy. He cares because he suffered and he cares so deeply. He cares about us, all of us.
How to Stop Time is out now in paperback.
I’ve always been passionate about books and movies and I want to share what I love with you! I founded Minds Eye Reviews to explore media from a psychological perspective, so as to better understand the human condition.