'I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.'
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 and tame the past that is fast catching up with him. The only thing Tom mustn't do is fall in love.
How to Stop Time is a wild and bittersweet story about losing and finding yourself, about the certainty of change and about the lifetimes it can take to really learn how to live.
'I have been in love only once in my life. I suppose that makes me a romantic, in a sense. The idea that you have one true love, that no one else will compare after they have gone. It’s a sweet idea , but the reality is terror itself. To be faced with all those lonely years after. To exist when the point of you has gone.'
The Humans by Matt Haig is the first book I reviewed on Hair Past a Freckle and pretty much the reason why this blog exists. It remains my most recommended book and the one that means the most to me. It was the book I needed when I most needed books.
Four years on and How To Stop Time is Haig's first adult fiction book since The Humans. He's not been quiet in the meantime having written a young adult novel, Echo Boy, a self-help memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, and two books for children, A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas. Having read them all (as well as his previous novels The Radleys, The Last Family in England, Shadow Forest and The Runaway Troll.) I know a little of what to expect from his books. I don't know if there's an author writing today who is better than Haig at making it seem as if his book is written with you in mind. He has a deep understanding of the human condition and writes with such honesty and clarity that his books become more than just stories, they are beacons of hope in what are troubled times.
How To Stop Time continues this theme, again Haig's principal character - in this case Tom Hazard - needs to learn what it means to live. Tom doesn't have any problem staying alive, in fact he's over 400 years old, but forced to move every few years before people become suspicious by his much slower ageing rate ('The speed of ageing among those with anageria fluctuates a little, but generally it is a 1: 15 ratio') and the knowledge that his condition means he is dangerous to become close to has led to a lonely existence. Despite leading what many would consider an extraordinary life, born in 1581, he has spent time with Shakespeare, had a drink with F. Scott Fitzgerald, sailed to the South Sea Islands and watched as mayflies (humans who age naturally, Tom and others like him are albas - short for albatrosses, once thought to live to a great age) have invented bicycles, cars, the telephone, television and the internet, he craves an ordinary life. Now working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive he finds himself drawn to Camille, the French teacher but he knows he should heed the warning from Hendrich, leader of The Albatross Society and facilitator of his new lives every few years - in return for certain 'favours'...
‘The first rule is that you don’t fall in love,’ he said. ‘There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love . No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this you will just about be okay.’
Living in London means Tom is surrounded by memories from his long past. How to Stop Time isn't written chronologically, something in Tom's present will remind him of past events and we're transported there. Haig writes so vividly that these scenes are always far more than distant memories. His evocation of the sights, smells and sounds bring Tom's past to life;
'It was an area, essentially, of freedom. And the first thing I discovered about freedom was that it smelled of shit. Of course, compared to now, everywhere in or out of London smelled of shit. But Bankside, in particular, was the shittiest . That was because of the tanneries dotted about the place . There were five tanneries all in close proximity, just after you crossed the bridge. And the reason they stank, I would later learn, was because tanners steeped the leather in faeces.
As I walked on, the smell fused into others. The animal fat and bones from the makers of glue and soap. And the stale sweat of the crowd. It was a whole new world of stench.'
By having a plot with a meandering timeline we are reminded that history isn't just something that happened long ago, we are history too. Tom may use social media now but he recognises how we are linked to the past, how the conflicts, superstitions and oppressive regimes from previous centuries are lessons we never really learn from. He has seen people repeat the same mistakes over and over, the contemporary setting providing a sharp reminder that we still haven't learnt and still allow our differences to divide us.
How to Stop Time is a beautiful book, it's not a word I would use often to describe a novel but it's completely charming. From the simple wish to prepare breakfast for a loved one ('Toast. Blackcurrant jam. Pink grapefruit juice. Maybe some watermelon. Sliced. On a plate.') to the description of 19th century New York ('But I looked at the New York skyline and felt like the world was dreaming bigger. Clearing its throat. Getting some confidence.'), to the heartbreaking despair of loss ('I did not know how to be me, my strange and unusual self, without her. I had tried it, of course. I had existed whole years without her, but that was all it had been.') I fell in love with it within the first few pages, it's a book that celebrates the things we all need to make us feel human - music, art, food, love. Haig's understanding of what happens inside heads though is what gives How to Stop Time its heart. He writes with his soul which gives the book a touching honesty and although it may be a fantastical story of a 400 year old man, it's actually telling a universal truth, that life needs to be lived. For all the hurt, the losses along the way, we can't allow fear of grief to prevent us from experiencing the joys of living, to allow ourselves to hope and to love and be loved.
Many thanks to the publishers for my advance copy, received through Netgalley in return for this review.
How to Stop Time will be published in the UK by Canongate on 6th July 2017. You can follow Matt Haig on Twitter as @MattHaig1 and Canongate as @canongatebooks.