Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life.
Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. Here he can teach the kids about wars and witch hunts as if he’d never witnessed them first-hand. He can try to tame the past that is fast catching up with him. The only thing Tom must not do is fall in love.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you might have seen that I recently picked up this novel at a charity shop for only a £1! Something I was incredibly excited about as I have been desperate to read some of Matt Haig’s work for a long time. I’d heard so many good things about his writing and I was not disappointed. When I started reading How To Stop Time, I got so much more than I bargained for. Yes, it is an engaging and heartbreaking story but Haig also uses the plot to challenge ideas within our own society – one of my favourite things an author can do. There is so much packed into this novel and so many different aspects I could talk about but I’ll try to stick to my top three as usual.
Matt Haig’s exploration of humanity and how we view life is incredibly thought-provoking. He uses Tom’s extra time on Earth to provide a viewpoint of humanity’s evolution – or lack of it in some cases. Haig criticises one of the worst things about our species – our superiority complex – when he writes:
Turtles have been around for two hundred and twenty million years. Since the triassic period. And they haven’t really changed that much. Humans, in contrast, have been around only a short while. And you don’t have to be a genius to switch on the news and conclude: we probably don’t have long. (45-6)
Despite the fact that we have probably spent the least amount of time on this planet of all species, we believe we own it and, therefore, have the right to destroy it. We seem to think that we are superior to all other species in terms of intelligence and yet we will probably be the ones to obliterate ourselves. Haig continues by saying, “It is all right if you know you only have another thirty or forty years. You can afford to think small” (46). This is something that infuriates me about humanity – the majority don’t care about what we are doing to the planet because they won’t be around to see it die. Haig also explores how we live our lives and gives advice on how best to do it through the character of Omai:
It seems the perfect way to live. Riding a wave, falling off, getting back on. So much of life seems to be based around the idea of rising, of building something up – income or status or power – of living a kind of upward life, as vertical as a skyscraper. But Omai’s existence seems as natural as the ocean itself, as wide and open as the horizon. (293).
This was one of my favourite quotes in the book as Haig tells us how to make the most of life in a refreshing way. He doesn’t suggest that life should be about material desires or always progressing to something better or richer. Rather, he encourages us to make the most of both the ups and downs of life, riding our trajectories like a wave and embracing everything we experience.
One of my favourite themes within literature is that of time and I loved Haig’s treatment of it in this novel. He utilises a couple of techniques in order to challenge our ordinary concept of time. For example, the story is not told in chronological order but rather we are met with chapter titles like “London, three weeks ago”, followed by “London, now” and then “London, 1623”. Tom does not have a conventional understanding of time as it has stretched on so long for him and Haig illustrates this perfectly through the simple titling of his chapters. He also uses anachronism to highlight this; for example, he writes, “as if I was walking inside one of Monet’s fuzzy depictions of London, which he was soon to paint” (33). Haig combines all three ideas of time when he does this – Tom is talking about the past, which was his present at the time of experiencing it and is using concepts from the future to describe it. Time, therefore, becomes almost non-existent within this novel. Once again, Haig uses this discussion to consider how we can live our lives to the fullest:
…you cannot know the future. You look at the news and it looks terrifying. But you can never be sure. That is the whole thing with the future. You don’t know. At some point you have to accept that you don’t know. You have to stop flicking ahead and just concentrate on the page you are on. (319)
Just as the author has discarded the idea of the future through his amalgamation of different periods of time, he encourages us to dispel our notions of the future. There is no point in constantly worrying about it or trying to predict it because it only affects our ability to enjoy the present.
A final aspect of this novel that spoke to me was its discussion of love. Throughout the novel, we are met with all different types of love – lost love, parental love, sisterly love – and Haig highlights the importance of each type. He underlines the importance of love when he writes:
It was best not to fall in love. But recently, now, I was starting to feel that you couldn’t do mathematics with emotions. In protecting yourself from hurt you could create a new, subtler type of pain. (132)
Due to his ‘condition’, Tom is not supposed to fall in love as 1. he will not be able to keep it a secret from her and 2. he will eventually have to say goodbye to her as she dies of old age and he lives on. However, he contemplates how not loving can be just as painful as loving and losing someone. A world without love is a world of pain. One of my favourite instances of love in the novel was that between two men, with “a man’s head on a man’s shoulder, the way you never used to see. It is a touching sight, I suppose, but makes me jealous” (275). This was hugely important for me because Tom has lived or centuries and finds no problems with this love. This challenges the argument used nowadays that older people are from “another generation”, as though this justifies their discriminative views – something I take EXTREME issue with. Just because someone has lived in a time that promoted offensive views, this does not mean they are not capable of recognising this as wrong and taking a stand against it.
I gave this book a 4 out of 5 stars and I would recommend it to anyone who will listen. Have you read it? Are you adding it to your TBR? Are you a fan of Matt Haig’s work? Let me know in the comments below!