How to Stop Time was an advance review copy I got from the publisher via Net-galley. It launches this week.
How to Stop Time
by Matt Haig
Published by Canongate books on 6th July
304 pages – paperback ISBN 9781782118626; ebook ISBN 1782118632
The Blurb (Goodreads)
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 loved this book. Whenever I paused, I was thinking about it and looking forward to getting back to it. It isn’t time-travel, but it feels a bit that way. I think I marked it as historical fiction and scifi as well, although I see some have shelved it as fantasy and some as magical realism. Whatever it is, it’s engrossing.
The author takes you into various parts of Tom’s life, forward and back, to the events that concern him most, to the background to his thoughts as he tracks his way around present-day London. Tom’s life being incredibly long, that takes us back to the middle ages to meet his mother. Because Tom seems not to grow older, they convict her for witchcraft. The memory of that event is something that haunts Tom, and I think the author does an excellent job of creating this fractured personality that has seen so much grief and sorrow, endured so much hardship.
The incidents or snapshots that we return to examine in Tom’s past take us skipping through what I always enjoyed about history – the bits that weren’t part of the school curriculum when I was a child. This is about how people lived – the bawdiness of the original Globe Theatre, the horrific plight of factory workers; the stench of the tanneries beside the Thames, which was clogged with sewage right up until Victorian times, when the Great Stink finally forced Parliament to act, and got Bazalgette to design a wondrous underground sewage system (actually, Bazalgette doesn’t get a mention, but Paris’s sewers do).
The writing is vivid, absorbing, and unsettling. On many occasions I wondered about the mysterious Heinrich who seemed to help Tom to shift his life into a new area, to start again before people became suspicious. Then it settles as Tom finds some sort of peace—only for his driving force to return and the pace (and place) changes again. The narrative runs through the snapshots, tying them together so I never got lost—or lost interest. It is masterfully done.
It’s a book that warrants time spent on it – time to read, time to reflect.
It reminded me of Time Enough to Love, once one of my favourite scifi books. (It was the 70s and I wasn’t old enough to care about the misogyny.) How to Stop Time also has some connection with The Time Traveller’s Wife (which I must read – I loved the film). And most especially, it reminded me of a sadness I have over my Princelings books; my characters are based on people whose normal lifespan is so much shorter than mine. It came with a jolt to realise that the timespan Mr Haig has chosen for his hero – one year to fifteen of the ‘normal’ humans around him, is almost identical to the accepted rate for guinea pig lives – estimated at fourteen years to one of ours. It put it all very painfully into context. Yet it also brought some sort of healing, too.