I discovered Matt Haig back in 2014. The novel was The Humans, which I had pulled off the shelf at Chapters because I loved its cover art and had a gut feeling that I had found a gem. I was right.
Next for me came Reasons to Stay Alive (2016), a wonderful, brave work of non-fiction that takes the reader into the darkness of anxiety-depression in which Haig found himself between the ages of 24 and 32—a very long time. Reasons to Stay Alive is so Matt Haig, in the sense that it is bare-your-heart honest, tender, compassionate and full of humanity, laced with humour, and centred on love as the sine qua non for a life of joy and meaning (there are actually 13 novels to Haig’s credit—he also writes for children—and has published six works of non-fiction).
Last week, I finished How to Stop Time (2018). While it’s very recognizably a Haig novel, I think that it’s perhaps his most thought-provoking yet. Because that’s the thing about all of his books: while their tone is often light, whimsical and endearing, they are usually taking life’s biggest questions and challenges head on, using a clever narrative to do it.
How to Stop Time imagines a world in which there are humans of two types, referred to by a few in the know as albatrosses and mayflies. Albatrosses are those rare humans who, once through puberty, age only 1 year for every 15 years of normal human life. Mayflies are like us. Though the novel never reveals when Albatrosses appeared in human history (they probably do not know themselves), one assumes it was long ago. Their name derives from the fact that they believed albatrosses were birds with extraordinarily long lifespans (science later proved them wrong, but the name stuck). With actual mayflies only living a single day in nature, the metaphor of inequity is obvious.
Or is it? In a world in which a child quickly begins to out-age his parent (if that parent is an Albatross, or Alba, for short), or a husband looks young for 15, 30, 45, 60 years and centuries more, while his wife ages normally, year after year, and dies almost overnight by Alba standards…who is suffering most? Who is the outcast? Who is condemned, generation after generation to centuries of separation, loss and grief? Who is in danger?
Tom Hazard, born in France in 1581, is one of the few Albas we come to know intimately in How to Stop Time. We meet him in 2017, in London, England, where he has just been hired as a history teacher in a local high school. Tom is struggling. At 436 years old, with the appearance of someone barely in his early thirties, he has been around an awfully long time—long enough to have loved, lost, despaired, moved all over the planet through the centuries, hidden, escaped, and felt alone. He suffers from existential exhaustion, I think.
Mostly, Tom longs for those he has loved deeply: his wife, Rose, a “mayfly” human whom he lost to disease in the 16th century, and their daughter Marion, miraculously, an Alba, from whom Tom has been separated for almost five centuries. His is a very faithful, aching heart. Because Albas are immune to almost all human diseases, only a violent death will shorten Tom’s, Marion’s and other Alba’s lifespans. And so, through century after century, Tom has sought Marion. In vain. And sought, too, the company of other Albas, in the belief that only someone of his kind can possibly relate to his melancholy and pain.
Persecuted and misunderstood for centuries, Tom, like most Albas, lives in fear—especially the fear of emotional pain.
The novel jumps back and forth, following Tom’s memories and life from the present, to Suffolk, England in 1599, back to the present, then to London from 1607 to 1616, then on to Canterbury and Plymouth, England during the same period, then back to the present in London, then again to Plymouth in 1768 and 1772, to the exotic Huahine, Society Islands, in 1773, then back to the present in London. The novel includes pit stops through time in London, 1891, New York, 1891, Bow and Hackney in London, in 1899, Bisbee, Arizona and Los Angeles, in 1926, Paris in 1929, and, finally, Dubai and Byron Bay Australia now. It’s enough to give anyone angst.
It’s also a device that allows the author to create cameo appearances for such historical superstars as William Shakespeare, Captain Cook and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.
This, I think, is what works least well in the novel. Five centuries are an awful lot to cover, and the cameos feel like plain old name dropping. What works brilliantly is the emotional, philosophical exploration that Haig undertakes alongside his protagonist.
In recent centuries, a secret association called the Albatross Society has been formed to protect Albas from the double threats of superstition and science. Its “director” is a man called Hendrich, who appears to be dedicated to the task of keeping Albas safe, and assuring them, as much as possible, a life without pain. The only way forward, in Hendrich’s mind, is for the existence of Albas to remain a secret, and it seems like he’ll go to extreme lengths to make sure it is so.
In sum, Hendrich zealously promotes a culture of fear of pain, of the future…. of life itself (I think he would build a wall around Albas if he could).
The last third of the novel allows the reader to accompany Tom through life-altering experiences and realizations. Rather than say anything more, I’ll leave you with the series of questions Tom leaves each reader. They are about living beyond fear, and they are beautiful.
“And, just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I?
If I could live with doubt, what would I do?
If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over?
If I could love without fear of being hurt?
If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss tomorrow?
If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal?
What would I do?
Who would I care for?
What battle would I fight?
Which paths would I step down?
What joys would I allow myself?
What internal mysteries would I allow myself?
How, in short, will I live?”