"I suddenly realise it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that we age differently. It doesn't matter that there is no way of resisting the laws of time. The time ahead of you is the like the land beyond the ice. You can guess what it could be like but you can never know. All you know is the moment you are in."
Imagine, for a second, that you were different to everyone else. To others, you may seem like a rather ordinary forty year old, but the reality is you're closer to four hundred and ninety. This is the problem of Tom Hazard, the protagonist of Matt Haig's incredible new novel How to Stop Time. Tom suffers from a rare condition that has caused him to be alive for centuries, ageing one physical year every fifteen years. Always on the move to avoid suspicion, Tom now works in a secondary school as a history teacher, but the one rule he is told never to break keeps making itself known; never fall in love.
The joyous quality with Matt Haig is that he truly understands the human soul. He really captures the full scale of emotion that comes from living a long, and, at times, bleak life, but is written with such an ordinary flair, how even Tom's unusual condition is written in the most ordinary way, but that only strengthens the novel, as we, the ordinary people, can happily resonate. Tom throughout his many centuries of living, comes into contact with many famous figures of history, from Shakespeare to F.Scott Fitzgerald, but never feels like a purposeful name drop, these encounters feel so realistic and well crafted that you could believe that they may have actually happened. I was struck with awe on how well Haig gave Shakespeare a voice that was so fitting in what I thought Shakespeare may have actually been.
The structure is told in a mixture of current day narration, with extracts from particular years spanning over centuries. It never feels confusing or disjointed, as past and present fuse together to shape the overall story Haig is telling, and is accentuated by Tom's noting of the differences in the places he has visited before. London is described as a bustling, crowd roaring circus that stinks of shit at one point before becoming noticeably absent and morbid. These descriptions only accentuate Tom's overbearing sadness and loneliness and you really capture the essence of how horrifically long his life is.
But the beauty of this, is the deep philosophical themes that weave throughout the book, are ones we have all pondered upon at one point or another. Sometimes we question the very value of life, and whether we waste it flippantly or not, and Haig toys with this at many points in the novel. Tom openly talks about his desire at one point to commit suicide, but the thought of his missing daughter prevented him from doing so, and this is told in such lucid, beautiful prose. The meaning of life is often a question that can never truly be answered but Haig does his very best through Tom's complex, sad life; by bearing his cross of living for many years, he can still get through each day by thinking of his daughter. From this you come away from the book truly thankful for the life you have, and in wake of the awful tragedy in Manchester, makes you appreciate everything in life you have today, as it could be gone tomorrow.
Haig's writing is equally as funny as it is charming and touching, his craftsmanship of language is so admirable as he can make you laugh one moment ("Every era is clogged with Martins, and they're all dickheads.") to then breaking your heart within a few sentences. To reiterate, the ordinary-ness of Tom's character and his situation (though it most definitely extraordinary) makes him, and his story, so utterly believable that you feel like you have lived alongside him and his many lifetimes. I only wish the ending hadn't been so rushed, as I felt the last three chapters or so raced along a little frenetically to try and tie things up, such as the introduction to some very important characters, as the rest of the story flowed in such a beautiful way and it felt jarring.
Written with such fluidity, charm and heart-breaking emotion, How to Stop Time is a novel that will encourage you to let go from all the darkness in the world and truly appreciate the art of living your life. Full of wisdom, empathy and philosophical ideas, this is Matt Haig's best work yet.
Preorder at £12.99
Due for release in July
Thanks to Canon Gate for the advanced proof copy.