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How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

BOTTOM LINE: Surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking with a beautiful message

Genre: Literary Fiction; Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 6 February 2018
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“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. Tom has lived history–performing with Shakespeare, exploring the high seas with Captain Cook, and sharing cocktails with Fitzgerald. Now, he just wants an ordinary life.

So Tom moves back his to London, his old home, to become a high school history teacher–the perfect job for someone who has witnessed the city’s history first hand. Better yet, a captivating French teacher at his school seems fascinated by him. But the Albatross Society, the secretive group which protects people like Tom, has one rule: Never fall in love. As painful memories of his past and the erratic behavior of the Society’s watchful leader threaten to derail his new life and romance, the one thing he can’t have just happens to be the one thing that might save him. Tom will have to decide once and for all whether to remain stuck in the past, or finally begin living in the present.

How to Stop Time tells a love story across the ages – and for the ages – about a man lost in time, the woman who could save him, and the lifetimes it can take to learn how to live. It is a bighearted, wildly original novel about losing and finding yourself, the inevitability of change, and how with enough time to learn, we just might find happiness.”

My Thoughts: In Matt Haig‘s wildly original new novel, How to Stop Time, there is a secret society that does not want you to know they exist. They call themselves the Albatross Society because back in the day, albatrosses were thought to have an unusually long lifespan. The members of this secret society age at a fraction of the rate normal humans do, which means they tend to live for hundreds and hundreds of years, but you will never know them. They don’t fall in love; they don’t form close relationships with anyone, and they disappear every eight years to avoid detection.

With rules like that, it is no wonder that Tom Hazard is tired. After four hundred years of living a fairly isolated life with no close friends or family, he questions his very existence and hopes that returning to the scenes of his early 20s will help him recall what it is like to live like everyone else. Except, once there, the proximity to his past brings it even closer than he ever thought, blurring the line between past and present, making him question his sanity, and forcing him to reevaluate everything he thought was important to him.

We enter Tom’s life at the time he is having a true crisis of faith. He is tired of life and tired of the restraints and obligations set upon him by the Society. He hopes his move to London and his position as a history teacher will bring some much-need focus to his life. We see his exhaustion and learn about his growing apathy towards everything and everyone. Most of all, we see him scoff at us regular humans for our misplaced obsession with technology and things.

With a description about a man who has lived for centuries, I was expecting a novel with a bit more adventure and action. Instead, it is almost a character study of humanity at large. It is definitely a character-driven novel in which Tom takes us through his past to the point where he joins the Society and through his present as he struggles with what to do about the endless years still facing him. Through this, we not only learn from his observances about humans over the last four centuries, we also get an intimate look at what life was like during the Elizabethan era.

Mr. Haig minces no words during the historic scenes. Nor does he beautify history. He shows what was in all its filthy, unregulated glory. Mud is the least of the issues. People setting up markets on main streets next to animal waste. Drinking beer because it was the one thing guaranteed not to kill you since no one knew if the water was safe. Abject poverty. Crime. Brutality. Bigotry. Sure, this was at the same time Shakespeare was writing and performing his plays, but there was nothing glorious about the era. Because of his unusual genetics, Tom faces the worst of humanity as people always fear what they do not understand, and during that age fear and not understanding went hand-in-hand with cries of witchcraft. Mr. Haig does not present a pretty picture because there was none to be had.

What he does do with these scenes, though, is shows us how to find the good within the bad. How to hold close love and comfort and warmth when it is available to you. Tom learns this at an early age because he understands how fleeting it is for him given his condition. Yet it is something we humans tend to repeatedly forget until it is way too late.

In How to Stop Time, Mr. Haig capitalizes on society’s fascination with living forever to show us what it might be like to truly do so. This is not a vampire story or a werewolf story or any other mythical creature who lives forever story. Tom is as human as you and me; he just happens to age very, very, very slowly. While it would be easy for Mr. Haig to focus on the negative aspects about today’s lust for the latest and greatest technology, our short attention spans, and our addictions to social media/our phones/the Internet, he does not do so. Instead, just as in his previous novel, Mr. Haig uses the outsider to observe and remember the human connections that bind us together and make us truly immortal. He reminds us to stop and rest and to enjoy life. He shows us that wishing for what we cannot have is just as bad as not paying attention to what we do have.

Tom struggles most with regret, and that is a lesson of which we all need reminding. He regrets giving up on his wife and daughter. He regrets certain decisions which put him on his current path. He regrets not being stronger when he needed to be so. Through his regrets, we are reminded that life is too short to have regrets. No one wants to look back on your life and wish you had done things differently. Even a man who has been alive for four hundred years needs a reminder that life is more than our phones and our Instagram account and that an unhappy life is one that is squandering the blesses this life provides. We just have to know where to look and not be afraid to grab it when happiness appears.

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