How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig

Another book from my Goodreads 2018 Challenge. You can view my progress here. (NOTE: This review contains spoilers)

I started this after being recommended it by a friend, and with an early morning train journey to London in sight I figured this would be the perfect companion to entertain me during said journey.

I quite like reading time travel books (11.22.63 and The Time Travelers Wife being some of my favourites) and I guess in a roundabout way this novel does fall into that spectrum. That being said, it could also be categorized as historic, romantic, or even fantasy.

“If you saw me, you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong. I am old — old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old.”

Instead of a time travelling DeLorean or a self-made time machine (not a Tardis in sight!), instead the ‘time-traveler’ is Tom Hazard; a 439 year old man who looks 40. Tom is one of a handful of people who age incredibly slowly compared to normal humans. He can die, but disease and illness doesn’t kill him hence the over inflated life span. He is a member of the ‘Albatross Society’; a dubious organisation that provides new identities and lives for its members to live, each lasting 8 years before they are sent on ‘assignment’ to recruit new members before being reissued a new ‘life’ (Apparently it takes 8 years for the average human to notice you aren’t aging).

All sounds good as long as you don’t break the number one rule (and it’s not ‘don’t talk about Fight Club’): you are not allowed to fall in love.

“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.”

Tom has just been issued a new life in modern-day London as a history teacher where he meets French Teacher Camille and falls head over heels in love with her. Alongside this Tom is also searching for his long-lost daughter; another Albatross like him whom he lost contact with many many years before, and whom the Albatross Society promises to reunite Tom with.

Told from Tom’s point of view across many many different years and stages of his unusually long life, I both enjoyed and was annoyed by the events over the course of the novel. Whilst it was fascinating to see how Tom went from Etienne – originally a French aristocrat exiled to England – to one of Shakespeare’s Lute players to a pianist for F.Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s, there were several clichés that I both liked and disliked in unison. Whilst Haig’s dancing across several time periods worked well in the context of the story, there was a lot of mourning and philosophizing about time (a bit cliched) and the loss of time and life (even more of a cliche) which for a train journey at 6.30 in the morning was rather a lot. At times I felt the novel was a bit slow going with no real plot progression, and at times I also found the jumping back and forth between the different time narratives confusing; it was difficult for me to settle into any particular rhythm of the time period despite the richness in the way Haig developed it.

It appeared to me that a large portion of the first half of the book was devoted to Tom mourning the loss of his wife from 400 years previously (where his lost daughter originated from), and just when I thought it was starting to pick up, you’d go to another flashback where Tom would be mourning again. Maybe I’m a little callous, but I felt that all the mourning was slightly unnecessary in comparison to the richness of Tom’s life and the time periods he frequented.

The past events and use of analepsis made the story highly interesting to me, but it just felt that Haig relied too much on well known popular culture (Shakespeare, the Fitzgeralds etc) which felt a little contrite at times. Instead of making Tom’s absurdly long life appear interesting in terms of the role he played in other well known lives, Haig should have focused on developing Tom’s slow paced life and his struggle to find an identity that fitted in with a rapidly changing society – character development over flashy plot devices.

As the novel progresses, the bumpy start diminishes and instead we are left with an exploration of the dangers of isolation and mental anxieties – something as relevant in Shakespeare’s society as it is today. Through Tom’s first person narrative we see how imprisoned and lonely he is in his existence. He is a likable character, but Haig sometimes struggles to create empathy for him – I found myself sometimes pitying him for his defeatist attitude, rather than sympathizing the tremendous loss of his identity across time.

The main purpose of this novel was to explore the extremes of life and time that Tom has experienced, whereas in The Time Travelers Wife it was more about the intense emotions felt towards the characters. Whilst I didn’t get that with this novel, I did enjoy seeing the deterioration of the character against the redeeming feature of love. A worthy beach read.

Love Gemma signoff

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