This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.
Matt Haig had already published a number of fiction and nonfiction books when his memoir of suffering a mental health breakdown, Reasons to Stay Alive, became a number one Sunday Times bestseller. His output since has been prolific – fiction, nonfiction, and books for children. How to Stop Time taps into many of the themes explored in previous works. Through the prism of a man who has been alive for centuries, aging at a rate that makes existing in normal society difficult, it offers a fairly bleak appraisal of humanity and how little is learned from history.
The protagonist of the story is Tom Hazard, just one of the names he has been known by in his long life. Born in the spring of 1581, at his aristocratic parents’ French château, Tom and his mother fled to England following his father’s death in a war. There have been so many wars. There have also been travels that led to meeting famous names – cultural icons and revered explorers. Tom has been witness to many and varied horrors wreaked by his compatriots, including the routing and murder of far flung indigenous populations.
“We weren’t there to take over, we were there, in our own minds, to discover.
And yet we had done what so often happened in the proud history of geographic discovery. We had found paradise. And then we had set it on fire.”
In the present day Tom is a forty-one year old history teacher at a secondary school in Tower Hamlets. Here he meets Camille, a French teacher, and is attracted to her in a way he hasn’t felt in over four hundred years. As a young man he fell in love with Rose, a fruit seller living with her younger sister in Hackney. They had a daughter, Marion. But Tom did not age physically as Rose did and their superstitious neighbours grew increasingly perturbed. After what happened to his mother, Tom realises he must move on, alone.
This is the life he has known – moving on when his unchanging youthful visage draws attention. He learns that there are others in the world like him and is drawn into a sort of secret society that aims to keep them out of the limelight, particularly away from scientists who might treat them like lab rats, hoping to publish academic papers that will raise their profile. Tom is warned that he should not fall in love again, that it only leads to trouble given what he must keep hidden. He may enjoy good food, fine wine, music and rarefied company but avoid attachments. It is a lonely existence.
“’If only we could find a way to stop time,’ said her husband. ‘That’s what we need to work on. You know, for when a moment of happiness floats along. We could swing our net and catch it like a butterfly, and have that moment forever.’
Zelda was now looking across the crowded bar. ‘The trouble is they stick pins in butterflies. And then they are dead”
The structure of the story takes the reader back and forth across the centuries of Tom’s long life. Anchored in the present day, his past is conjured through memories, often dredged up while he is teaching about a period he remembers. Many of these episodes highlight the worst of human nature: the neighbours who relish in the suffering of those they disliked for spurious reasons; the pure evil of the witch finders; violence, such as bear baiting, regarded as entertainment. There is also some kindness, such as Rose taking in a stranger in need of help. Music is a balm across time and place.
Tom is not always likeable. At one stage in his life he frequents brothels. He is easily led down murky roads when taken under the wing of a wealthy benefactor. Like so many he does not always learn from his mistakes.
One aspect of Tom’s condition is regular headaches that exacerbate his apparent inability to stay focused in the present. These became rather tedious as they added little to the tale. Perhaps, though, the same could be said of his getting a dog, the inclusion of which provided some relief from the negativity.
The author quotes from several of his other works, often upbeat snippets, but this story remains a fairly dark interpretation of the human psyche. As the denouement approaches, tension builds. The ending works but felt incomplete. The reaction of one key character lurking in the background, another long lived individual, was not revealed.
Any Cop?: An interesting idea presented as a perfectly readable story yet somehow lacking in depth despite the obvious messaging that man should do better. In many ways this is a typical novel from Haig, but it is not his best.