How to Stop Time is the Sunday Times Bestseller by author Matt Haig (you can pick up a copy of the novel here.) Published earlier this year in July, it tells the story of Tom Hazard, who looks forty years old but is in actuality approximately four hundred years old. Tom suffers from “anageria”, a condition which means he ages approximately one ‘normal’ year every fifteen years. Tom, as we come to know him, was born in 16th century France to a noble family and has lived through The Industrial Revolution and The Age of Discovery, and currently resides in Tower Hamlets in London under the ‘protection’ of the Albatross Society, having decided to move back to London once again, having lived there once in the 1600’s as a teenager. The Albatross Society provides people like Tom protection: they help those affected with the condition to restart their lives every eight years, to avoid drawing suspicion from those around them- in exchange for a ‘small’ price, to be paid at the start of each eight-year cycle.
“I am old – old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old. I was born well over four hundred years ago, on the third of March 1581 …”
The story alternates between two timelines, the current Tom Hazard struggling to repress the past that comes bubbling up as he returns to London, and the past Tom Hazard and all his past adventure and experiences, including encounters with F. Scott Fitzgerlad, Captain Cook, and Shakespeare. Tom is lonely, above all else: He was once in love, in the 16th century, with a woman who he had a daughter by, but has since then been isolated by his constant displacements around the globe. The novel seeks to explore the cycle of memory and the differences between living and being alive.
“It made me lonely. And when I say lonely, I mean the kind of loneliness that howls through you like a desert wind. It wasn’t just the loss of people I had known but also the loss of myself. The loss of who I had been when I had been with them.”
Haig’s work seeks to explore the cycle of memory, the way in which human experience seems to rewind and replay itself through the ages. Tom has lived a very long time, but we are confronted with the questions of whether he is truly “living”, or if he is merely alive. Haig seems to push the reader to consider whether their lives are meaningful in the only way that they can actually be meaningful, through human relationships. History repeats itself, and the only thing that seems to make such a cycle of pain bearable is the opportunities it provides to love and connect. The pain and the repetitiveness of this pain is the reason people can’t live longer than a century at most: at a certain point, you see that everything repeats itself, and your reasons for living lose their most vital meanings.
“It occurred to me that human beings didn’t live beyond a hundred because they simply weren’t up for it. Psychologically, I mean. You kind of ran out. There wasn’t enough self to keep going. You grew too bored of your own mind. Of the way life repeated itself. How, after a while, there wasn’t a smile or a gesture you hadn’t seen before. There wasn’t a change in the world order that didn’t echo other changes in the world order. And the news stopped being new. The very word ‘news’ became a joke. It was all just a cycle. A slowly rotating downward one. and your tolerance of human beings, making the same mistakes over and over again, began to fade.”
Let me say that while Matt Haig is doubtless an incredibly entertaining writer, there is something within his fiction that seems to lack depth of emotion. The interactions between characters are dry and minimal, even in the most passionate of love affairs. The novel hinges on the tangential encounters with big-name historical figures, rather than the human emotion behind such encounters. How to Stop Time is without a doubt, well written and worth a read, the larger themes the novel seeks to explore often come across as sophomoric in their interpretations and shallow in their applications.
Reviews of How to Stop Time:
A few other works by Matt Haig: