Book Review: Piranesi


“Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and must proceed according to the evidence.”

The protagonist and narrator of Piranesi is a young man who believes himself to be between thirty and thirty-five years of age. He lives largely alone in the House, a building made up of many vast halls on several levels whose walls are lined with statues depicting both humans and other creatures. Predictable Tides flow through the lower levels, occasionally rising higher to engulf the halls where the young man spends much of his time. It is one of these events that opens the story, with the young man clinging to a statue as the Sea sweeps over him before receding.

Twice a week, for no more than an hour at a time, the young man meets with the Other. It is this older man who provided his younger associate’s moniker, Piranesi – not the name he once had, although he cannot remember what that might have been. Together they seek ways to unlock the Knowledge. Piranesi remains quietly unconvinced that this is a good or necessary aim.

“I realised that the Other’s description of the powers the Knowledge will grant has always made me uneasy. For example: he says that we will have the power to control lesser minds; there are only him and me and we both have keen and lively intellects. But, supposing for a moment that a lesser mind existed, why would we want to control it?”

The young man reveres the House, believing it benevolent and capable of providing him with everything he needs. He collects rainwater to drink. He catches fish to eat. He talks to the birds that build nests within the halls. He eats neither them nor their eggs. Piranesi looks after the bones of those he believes once lived within the halls before him. He looks forward to meeting the next inhabitant who he refers to as Sixteen, although he has been warned by the Other that this person, should they arrive, could be dangerous.

The reader learns how Piranesi came to live in the House and the role the Other plays in his life. Reveals are gradual and intricately presented. The world building is exceptional. Plot progression is built around Piranesi’s learned habits and the changes he must then deal with.

The young man keeps journals and it is through these that he starts to question how reliable his memory is. Being largely happy and content to live in the House, such questions perturb his carefully constructed equilibrium. He tries always to think positively about the Other so is concerned by some of the actions the older man suggests may be necessary.

Although there is an element of the supernatural, this is not key to what the reader is being encouraged to consider. The House is Piranesi’s world. It is so vast he believes any other people who exist must reside within halls he has not yet travelled to. He has no concept of a beyond although at times shadows flicker in his mind that he cannot quite grasp.

A beautifully structured and developed story that questions what life can be and if those who know nothing else will personally benefit from elucidation. Not all questions may be answered, but the choices Piranesi ultimately makes will linger. A thought provoking and exceptionally well told tale.

Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury.


Book Review: Aurora


“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive”

Aurora, by Seraphina Madsen, is a highly disturbing bildungsroman. The narrator is not revealed until the end but it is clear throughout that they are very much taken with the eponymous protagonist whose early life they are recounting in detail. From the start there are hints of other-worldly beings. What unfolds is the danger of playing with powers beyond human understanding.

Aurora was born into a family derided by many as trailer trash. Her parents were immersed in the Arizona drug scene, dead before their child could know anything of them. She was raised by her hyper-religious grandmother, a hard-working woman determined that Aurora should enjoy the sort of luxury and privileges featured in a glossy magazine. From a young age the child was also willing to work hard to achieve this ambition.

What became clear to them was that someone of Aurora’s background would never be accepted by the elite offspring whose schools she succeeded in attending. She learned that she would have to hide her origins and make herself appear amenable and interesting. To become what her grandmother wanted she would also have to move away from Arizona where her background was more likely to be uncovered. Thanks to a scholarship, she secures a place at an elite prep school in New England. Here she shares a dorm room with Sylvia, who takes Aurora under her wing. The girls share many interests, not least a desire to dabble in occult practices and thereby commune with and derive power from the pagan entities of myth and legend. In their second year at the academy they join forces with a group of girls from California, whose parents provide money and luxury accommodation but little attention. Aurora must now work harder at her constructed persona if she is to continue to fit in.

“In your affairs, create suspense. Admiration at their novelty means respect for your success. It’s neither useful nor pleasurable to show all your cards. Not immediately revealing everything fuels anticipation, especially when a person’s elevated position means expectations are greater. It bespeaks mystery in everything and, with this very secrecy, arouses awe.”

The novel starts at a cracking pace. Aurora’s birth story, early years, experiences at her grandmother’s church and at her first school construct a background for what is to come. Once she starts at the academy this pace slows. There are many references to the books Aurora and Sylvia so avidly read – a deep dive into philosophy, religious history, surrealism and art that does go on a bit. Their initial dabbling in practical occult rituals, dangerous though they are, provide little deterrence to seeking the forces they wish to unleash. The California girls are equally intent on playing their dark, risk filled games. Their entitled upbringing and sense of self importance makes them impatient to experience whatever witchcraft and sorcery may offer before developing the skills they may need to stay in control of situations they blindly orchestrate.

“I don’t know, I mean having sex in a circle of witches yelling ecstatically as rooster blood and sperm is sprayed all over me, and then writing a symbol on parchment with the blood and sex fluids to create an entity that will give me supernatural powers sounds kind of hot.”

The girls imbibe copious quantities of alcohol and chain smoke cigarettes as they read each other excerpts from books and discuss potential occult experiments. Bear in mind that, at this time, they are still in their early to mid teens. The lack of parental attendance is explained, as is their ability to pay for anything they want and travel around the world at will. Whatever mess they end up making, ‘the help’ will ensure it is cleaned up and kept secret from anyone who may care what they are risking.

Aurora becomes something of a pet, tolerated but not regarded as an equal. While recognising this, she is still eager to remain a part of the group. The girls show little appreciation of the dangers inherent in dabbling with occult and pagan deities, and also the real world risks from over privileged males whose parents’ lawyers can make any ‘problem’ go away. They are described as beautiful, at times ethereal. Along with the reputations their practices earn them amongst peers this draws attention.

“the most coveted girls on campus, their fans imagining them while they masturbated. (This is one of the unfortunate prices of fame one does not often consider.)”

The denouement, despite everything that has gone on before, retains a depressingly shocking element. The girls may have been foolish but were granted unquestioned freedom and finances when too young to have wisdom. If this is how the children of the wealthy behave it is no wonder so many end up off the rails. Nevertheless, it is hard not to have some sympathy for Aurora – maybe not in how she came to regard her grandmother.

The writing style and narrative voice immerse the reader in the girls’ world. There is tension in the events recounted, although an interest in supernatural practices may help retain interest in the many books referenced. A highly unusual tale that tests the bounds of dark magic possibilities beyond narcotic effects. What is, sadly, a more grounded danger is the predicament Aurora ended up in, at least before the final pages stretch belief again.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dodo Ink.

Book Review: Boundless As The Sky

Boundless as the Sky

“mortals … building their bilious cities in order, it seemed, to name and rename and incinerate them and do it again.”

Boundless As The Sky, by Dawn Raffel, is structured in two parts. The first is a series of vignettes, a response to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – I have not read this book. I can’t claim to understand precisely what the author is trying to convey in many of the entries. Nevertheless, I can appreciate how beautifully written they are. Reading this section was akin to reading a poetry collection. There are many clever, ironic and humorous asides within the insightful observations of man’s behaviour and mistaken belief in the wider importance of his actions.

The second section in set in Chicago on Saturday 15 July 1933. The city was then hosting a World Fair, ‘The Century of Progress’, and preparing to welcome a flight of 24 seaplanes ending a 7000 mile flight from Rome, at the time under the rule of Mussolini. Through the experiences of a varied cast of characters the day unfolds. Once again the author offers clever pockets in the narrative to demonstrate the human condition and how short lived anything man does generally is in the wider scheme of things, despite the import granted at the time.

Several series of photographs are also included, an atmospheric touch that helps ground the reader in the time being written of. They provide a reminder of how much has changed – borders moved, buildings destroyed, acceptable dress and behaviour redefined. Yet within are people going about their day.

Much that was once regarded with awe is now forgotten. The once venerated dead lie beneath soil that has now been repurposed.

“There once was a man who lived in a county of a kingdom that no longer exists. At the center of the county was a castle which was ruined several centuries before the man was born …

The remains of the castle, which now belongs to another country, continues to be a tourist destination.”

Both sections of the book are worth reading. The first may be picked up and dipped into at will, the short entries enjoyed for their evocative yet playful discourse. The second section is a novella written from several unusual and interesting perspectives. These include: politicians, a variety of young people, a nurse, a reporter, so called freaks who are working at the fair. Several come from families displaced by war, the older generation fearing for what is now brewing in Europe. Despite this the crowds gather, milling in excited anticipation of the spectacle expected, however much some may claim little interest.

Historical Notes at the end provide insight into the author’s inspiration. Many of the characters are based on real people, events actually happened if not exactly as depicted.

An imaginative and engaging short read. A reminder of how hindsight too often rewrites history.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus Press.

Book Review: That They May Face the Rising Sun

Face the Rising Sun

That They May Face the Rising Sun, by John McGahern, is a quiet book in many ways. As the saying goes though, still waters run deep. The story being told takes what is ordinary and everyday and ably uncovers how it is the small moments that are important in a life, not the headline occasions. These latter events may be much anticipated but rarely live up to expectations, generating anxiety as much as pleasure. When looking back, contentment was experienced through what may not have been paid much attention at the time.

Joe and Kate Ruttledge leave their comfortable lives in London to work a farm in rural Ireland. The traditional house and land are purchased with the help of Joe’s uncle, the Shah, a self-made and successful businessman living and working in the nearby town. The Ruttledges are not expected to stay the course but, over time, find their niche in the tight-knit community. They accept the quirks and foibles of local residents, becoming good friends with their farming neighbours, Jamesie and Mary.

The story opens on a Sunday. The reader learns that Joe, who once considered entering the priesthood, no longer attends Mass despite this being expected whatever one’s beliefs may truly be. The rituals of neighbourly behaviour are played out in the opening pages. Doors are rarely locked and visitors enter each others homes with just a knock or greeting to warn of their arrival. Tea or whiskey are offered immediately with sandwiches or other foodstuffs prepared for those who linger. News is devoured with relish – the local kind involving those they know personally rather than much from further afield. What goes on in the wider world draws little interest as impact is limited and discussion may generate antagonism.

Like many who grew up in the area, Jamesie’s brother, Johnny, now works in England. He visits every summer and a great fuss is made of the occasion. As in many families, the great welcome offered belies the reality of feeling. This may be known by some but face is saved by going along with whatever is presented. It takes a crisis to make any family unit open up about concerns to even their closest acquaintances.

There are exceptions. John Quinn is an appalling character whose predilections shock those he claims as friends, and yet they are accepted. John is open about his behaviour, preferring the gossip about him to be based on a first hand account, relishing the attention. Bill Evans, on the other hand, grows upset if expected to talk much about himself. It is known that he suffered as a boy at the hands of the church and there is guilt, with all somehow feeling complicit.

Jamesie and Mary’s son now lives in Dublin with his wife and children. They offer a moving contrast between what each generation values and expects. Other characters come and go, offering insights into how differing people are regarded and treated. The politics of the time, the island divided, is mentioned but mostly as just another item of news that has little day to day effect.

The structure of the story offers a window into the Ruttledge’s daily existence over the course of around a year. The farm is tended, livestock reared and sold, visitors welcomed. The writing is insightful and at times poetic in its evocation of the area and the accepted culture of those who live there. The reader will become invested in the outcomes of characters. As the seasons progress and small changes in lives occur, they will grow eager to know what happens next.

A gentle yet powerful read that brings to the fore what is important in a life and how what many feel they should strive for may not bring long term contentment. A beautifully told tale that neither glorifies nor vilifies, drawing the reader into the hearths and homes of a small Irish community from where they may observe and judge for themselves.

That They May Face the Rising Sun is published by Faber & Faber

Book Review: Monogamy


“I don’t want you here, and I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to hear any of the understanding things you’re going to say.”

Monogamy, by Sue Miller, explores many aspects of marriage and family life. It tells the story of a middle aged couple who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Graham co-owns and runs a bookshop. Annie is a photographer. They have one child, Sarah, who Annie has never quite understood. Graham also has a child, Lucas, from his first marriage, to Frieda. Frieda left Graham because he wouldn’t stop having affairs. Neither has he been faithful to Annie, although she is unaware of this until after he dies.

The tale is built around these bare bones: how Annie and Graham get together, issues with their children as they grow towards independence, the continuing presence of Frieda in their lives, coping with the death of a loved one.

Graham and Annie have many friends and a lively social life. Parties at their home are a regular occurrence. The cast of characters introduced is large. Several times I had to look back to work out connections when a person reappeared in the narrative.

What gradually unfolds has, however, a deeper resonance. Marriage, parenthood, affairs, death – all are dissected and assessed forensically but through a warmly empathetic lens. There is a refreshing honesty in reactions. The family may be close and loving but many resentments fester. Each guards their inner thoughts – to avoid personal scrutiny or in an attempt to protect the feelings of those who will nevertheless interpret how they believe they are seen.

Growing up, Sarah adored Graham and found Annie cold. She felt shut out from her parents’ closeness. Lucas resented the sacrifices Frieda made for him, feeling in debt for something not asked for. Although they got on well, both children envied the familial setup the other had.   

Emotional responses to events are skilfully portrayed through conversations and descriptions of time spent alone. Not everything can be fixed, however well meaning a friend or relative may be. Moments of clarity occur when a character sees for the first time how they are regarded by others, especially by those they care for. 

“we read fiction because it suggests that life has a shape – that life isn’t just one damned thing after another”

The structure and pacing work well in moving the plot along but the strength of the story is in the character development. Each of the key players have their flaws and these are presented openly and as a part of what makes them what they are.

As an aside, it is always interesting to learn from books. I had no idea that some younger men may expect women to keep their private parts hair free because this is what they see in pornographic imagery and believe it is normal. Older men, when they encounter this trend in a lover, may be reminded of their young daughters – a deeply disturbing thought.

Graham’s appetites are presented as just how he is. It is what draws women to him and then how he causes them so much hurt when he is not sated, as they are. Frieda could not cope with the way he wanted to live, yet never managed to move out of his orbit. That Annie accepted Frieda’s close presence in their family setup may seem strange but adds an interesting dimension.

The denouement moves each family member forward through time, passing as it does. There is a rebalancing – the children’s lives expanding as their parents’ contract. This evolution and its effects was portrayed with aplomb.

In many ways an unusual read for me but one I got a good deal from. It is always interesting to consider how little we truly know even those we are close to, but how we can choose to love and mostly get along with them anyway.   

Monogamy is published by Bloomsbury.

Book Review: Solesearcher1


Like Benjamin Myers’ A Stone Statue In The Future, it would be a stretch to describe Solesearcher1 as a book. It is Sara Baume’s first published work, a short story that won her the Davy Byrne Prize in 2014. I was kindly sent a digital copy (a format I struggle to engage with) so I printed and bound it to create a copy I can now keep on my shelves. A little book albeit a mere 17 pages in length.

The protagonist of the story is Phil, a plumber by trade like her father before her. Every Sunday she goes sea fishing, and it is during this pursuit that we are first introduced. She dreams of catching a Dover sole – ‘almost impossible to catch on a line from the shore.’ 

After work each evening Phil goes for a drink at a local pub. Few women other than she frequent the place. Phil lives alone in ‘a tiny terrace house on the seafront of a village’. In stormy weather the downstairs can flood. On Saturdays she visits her father. They share a bland meal and watch television together. Fishing is, however, what Phil cares about.

“Only on Sundays does she cease egging time on until the next thing. Only with saltwater pressing waist-high against her waders does she feel calm, comforted by the squeeze of the sea. Only waiting for a bite is she content to simply wait.”

As the story unfolds there is a mystery around dogs going missing. Distraught owners put up notices. It is discussed at the pub. Phil keeps an eye out for these creatures when driving to and from jobs. The winter weather is making her fishing more challenging. Surrounds are now viewed through a bleak lens.

“she feels very suddenly and very powerfully as though her world is dwindling away, morsel by morsel, without ever being replenished.”

As with the author’s later works – I have read Spill Simmer Falter Wither and Seven Steeplesthe tale being told is well structured, spare and taut, while retaining reader attention. The evocative prose style lingers. Each character is well portrayed, adding depth to the narrative and acting as conduits to the sense of place. The denouement pulls the various threads together with a satisfying, somehow vividly understated, scene. 

I very much enjoyed this story, as I have everything so far read by this author. I am now eager to acquire her remaining works.

My sincere thanks to David Collard for sending me a copy of Solesearcher1.

Robyn Reviews: The Book Eaters

“These days, Devon only bought three things from the shops: books, booze, and Sensitive Care skin cream. The books she ate, the booze kept her sane, and the lotion was for Cai, her son. He suffered occasionally from eczema, especially in winter.”

‘The Book Eaters’ is a contemporary fantasy with clever ideas, but one that doesn’t quite carry the reader on its journey. The premise is solid and the plot twists and turns, but the characters lack cohesiveness, losing connection and chipping away at enjoyment. However, the central themes are excellent, and many other readers may enjoy this for the atmosphere and exploration of motherhood.

Set in an alternate version of the present day UK, ‘The Book Eaters’ follows Devon, part of a race of humanoids who eat books to survive – absorbing the contents of everything they consume. In their highly patriarchal society, girls are raised on Fairytales and married young to produce rare, prized book eater children. Devon has no reason to question her life until her children are born – especially her son, who has a rare book eater variant meaning he consumes not books, but human minds. Desperate to protect him, Devon flees book eater society for human society – but she and her son are persecuted by those she has left behind, and without their protection she must find a mind for her son every month to prevent him going mad.

The book utilises dual timelines – the present day, following Devon trying to care for her son but also struggling with alcohol abuse brought on by the horrors she has experienced, and the past, starting at Devon’s childhood and gradually introducing why she’s been forced out of her society. The timelines at first work well, maintaining a sense of mystery and answering key questions in a show-don’t-tell manner. However, with some of the revelations, early characterisation and thoughts in the present day timeline cease to make sense, and the story ties itself in a bit of a problematic knot. Some of the impact is lost, which is a shame as the first half is very strong.

Devon is a character with huge potential. Her views on motherhood are warped by her upbringing and her strange relationship with her son – she loves him, but also fears him and his hunger for minds, and she resents what she has to do to keep him alive. The question of how far a parent would go for their child is central to the story and one of the strongest aspects – but again, later developments slightly dilute the message. There’s also potential for strong exploration around substance abuse, but this potential isn’t utilised as much as it could be. However, Devon is a likeable enough character to carry the story, and her character arc throughout is strong and well-rounded.

The most interesting character is Devon’s son, Cai. Much like the book eaters minds are shaped by the books they read, his entire personality is affected by the minds he consumes, raising intriguing questions around how much he is his own person. Cai’s feelings around his actions and what he has to do to survive are explored more towards the end, and this is one of the best parts of the book. In many ways, this would be a stronger novel if Cai was afforded a point of view – writing this would be immensely challenging, but done well it would enhance the novel. Regardless, Cai is well-written, and whilst he doesn’t get huge amounts of page time, his sections are always thought-provoking.

Book Eater society takes inspiration from seventeenth and eighteenth century England – not the most original, but well crafted and believable, aside perhaps from how they’ve remained under the radar in the social media age. The consequent exploration of feminism and same sex relationships in the context of a highly structured and patriarchal society has been done before but is done well here, as are themes of bodily autonomy and consent. Some sections are deliberately uncomfortable to read, but they’re well-written with no gratuity and strong impact.

Overall, ‘The Book Eaters’ has strengths in its exploration of themes of motherhood, feminism and autonomy, and the creativity of its premise, but the characters can lack cohesion at times and the plot overcomplicates itself with its dual timelines towards the end and starts to fall down on believability. A novel that may appeal to fans of atmospheric reads and the central themes, but that unfortunately didn’t convince me.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 18th August 2022

Book Review: Water Shall Refuse Them

Water Shall Refuse

Water Shall Refuse Them, by Lucie McKnight Hardy, is described as folk horror. The atmosphere created is reminiscent of  works by Naomi Booth and Andrew Michael Hurley. There are undercurrents of disturbance and suspicion manifesting in characters whose actions raise many questions that are then gradually answered. The sense of place is dark and skilfully rendered.

Set in a remote village on the Welsh borders, where many resident families have lived for generations and retain long held prejudices and superstitions, the story is narrated by sixteen year old Nif whose family are still reeling from the death of her sister, Petra. It is the summer of 1976 and the intense heat adds a layer of discomfort. Grief has driven the family from their home in London to spend a month in this small village. As outsiders, few welcome their presence.

The story opens on the outward journey and quickly introduces elements with a touch of the uncanny. Nif holds a head on her lap. Her little brother, Lorry, is bleeding. The parents are distant and distracted, neglectful of their children’s needs. The cottage they are to stay in offers only basic facilities and hasn’t been lived in for years.

Having set the scene the author then introduces other key characters: near neighbours, Janet and her teenage son, Mally; the chapel congregation; a gang of girls Nif’s age who hang out to smoke and drink together. The censorious chapel goers are quick to warn Nif’s parents that Janet and Mally should be avoided. This advice is not heeded. Janet is beautiful and charismatic, despite succumbing regularly to inebriation. Mally takes a keen interest in Nif, suggesting they have much in common. One thing they do share is a willingness to kill or maim living creatures. Descriptions of their actions in this respect are both disturbing and distressing to read.

That is not to say there is any problem with the writing. The unfolding tale is taut and well structured, a finely tuned balance between revealing how family life was before Petra died – the impact of her birth and then details of the tragic event itself – and what happens in Wales. The narrative is deeply evocative with: rancid smells, venomous characters, a hint of witchcraft, and a pervasive air of malevolence. Although Mally often takes the upper hand in decision making, ultimately he underestimates Nif and the lengths she will go to in order to avenge festering slights.

There is tension aplenty although I guessed the final reveal early. None of the characters come out of this tale well. Despite all this it is a story worth reading. Just be aware that traits described capture seriously disturbed individuals who, for reasons worth pondering, continue to exist in plain sight.   

Water Shall Refuse Them is published by Dead Ink.

Book Review: Spill Simmer Falter Wither

spill simmer

Having enjoyed Sara Baume’s most recent novel, Seven Steeples, I was happy to discover her debut, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, on my TBR pile (yes, I lose track of what is on these shelves). The story has a harder edge in the telling than her later work. The writing remains taut and beautifully rendered throughout, making it a pleasure to read however hard hitting the subject matter.

Narrated by Ray, a fifty-seven year old man whose father died leaving him alone in the world, a backstory to what is now a difficult situation is slowly revealed. Ray knows nothing of his mother. He has never attended school. As a young boy he was cared for by an elderly neighbour when his father was at work. Although still young when she died, he was then expected to look after himself. 

Ray still lives in his father’s house, following a weekly routine that rarely takes him beyond the coastal village where he was raised. The story opens with his decision to adopt a dog from a nearby rescue centre. The animal he chooses is damaged, in body and mind, reminding Ray of himself. He calls the dog One Eye and hopes its presence will deter the rats in his attic from coming into the main body of the house. Soon dog and man bond, Ray’s days revolving around his pet’s needs.

One Eye’s nature is to run, to hunt, and to kill its prey, making it a danger to other creatures encountered while out on necessary daily exercise. Ray purchases a muzzle but is loath to force his dog to wear it. Instead they frequent quiet beaches and visit at times few others choose.

Ray’s experience of the world has made him wary of garnering attention. He wishes to be left alone even though this makes him feel lonely. One Eye’s company becomes his priority, even when the dog acts in ways that pull others into their orbit. Unable to deal with the consequences of this, Ray takes to the road, leaving his village and routine to keep One Eye safe. As winter approaches it becomes clear this way of living is not sustainable. 

Unusually for a book featuring a loyal dog, it was Ray’s story that garnered my sympathy. His father considered his son an imbecile, a misfit in a world he was then denied a place in. Ray’s solace lay in reading, where he discovered other people living lives he could not hope to enjoy himself. In One Eye he find a friend who appears to enjoy his company, a being that does not make him feel judged and found failing. 

As the story develops it becomes clear that Ray’s choices are limited. He must make difficult decisions that his background has provided no signposts to guide. The denouement is heart breaking but also, in a way, inevitable. A quietly devastating read that will linger beyond the final page.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is published by Tramp Press and Windmill Books.

Book Review: How To Stop Time

stop time

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.

Jackie Law