A timeless novel, one that feels like it could have been written 100 years ago but that also feels completely of the now.
Matt Haig’s exceedingly clever, astutely observed, melancholy novel How to Stop Time makes itself easy to love. Its premise, which involves a life-prolonging disorder, globe-hopping intrigue and a hefty dose of romance, is speculative and literary in the style of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life but also accessibly dynamic. Though it jumps through time and across the globe, easy chapter headings ground the reader in place and time. The temporal and geographic jumble is also balanced by the narrator, the aptly-named Tom Hazard, who inhabits a number of locations, careers, names and even eras, but whose character remains remarkably consistent throughout the novel.
Tom has a condition called anageria, which makes him age more slowly than the average human. Fifteen times more slowly, actually, which means that even though Tom resembles a man of 41, he is actually around 440 years old. Tom and his fellow slow-agers refer to themselves as Albatrosses while referring to “normal” humans as Mayflies. Being an Albatross, however, requires both secrecy and independence, and Tom is growing tired of both. The present of the novel finds him teaching history in London, a profession that is suited to this lifestyle but also dangerous in that it brings about constant reminders of the Mayflies he knew in previous lives.
It is this element that allows Haig to bring in a variety of historical figures, from William Shakespeare to Zelda Fitzgerald. Thankfully, though these cameos are welcome, they exist to support Haig’s strong fictional creations rather than take over. Instead, Tom’s own unique combination of joy and sorrow becomes clearer when paired with historical figures who shared his disposition. This is important, as Tom’s disposition is one of How to Stop Time’s key strengths. Though blessed with a nearly-invincible immune system and a life-expectancy of 900, Tom is often sad, both due to circumstance and because he simply is. Depression in novels is often treated as a key ingredient for melodrama, yet Haig normalizes the illness here by pressing its traits onto a protagonist who at first glance should have every reason to be happy.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Haig is the author of the bestselling memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, which chronicled his own experiences with depression and anxiety. But though there are likely autobiographical elements to Tom, Haig doesn’t make this a fictional re-telling of his own story. Instead, he takes several of the core symptoms of depression and anxiety and applies them to a speculative plot. He addresses loneliness, isolation, anger, loss and other parts of the disease in original, often subtle ways. Even the name Albatross, given to the anagerians because of how long the species of bird lives, is a clever reference to the weight that depression and anxiety can put around their victim’s neck.
Though it addresses depression – and contains a heavy dose of death (natural, supernatural, murder and suicide) – How to Stop Time is a warm novel. Tom is driven by romantic and familial love, and as a result the plot often is as well. This warmth is particularly impressive in a speculative novel, which can end up cold because of the (often necessary) focus on world-building. It’s also funny in a timeless way, with jokes earning laughs in various eras while maintaining a consistent tone. Though the focus on love – and time for the matter – often leads Haig to write in platitudes and the occasional cliche, the resulting tenderness of the novel forgives a great deal of it.
How to Stop Time is accessible but also deep and should appeal to a large variety of readers. It is widely, easily entertaining, while also being sneakily intelligent and crucially sad. Author Matt Haig uses his own experiences as a person and as a writer to create a world that is at once magical and believable. Aptly, it is a timeless novel, one that feels like it could have been written 100 years ago but that also feels completely of the now.