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325 pages, Hardcover
First published July 6, 2017
It is strange how close the past is, even when you imagine it to be so far away. Strange how it can just jump out of a sentence and hit you. Strange how every object or word can house a ghost. The past is not one separate place. It is many, many places, and they are always ready to rise into the present. One minute it is the 1590s, the next it is the 1920s. And it is all related. It is all the accumulation of time. It builds up and builds up and can catch you violently off guard at any moment. The past resides inside the present, repeating, hiccupping, reminding you of all the stuff that no longer is. It bleeds out from road signs and plaques on park benches and songs and surnames and faces and the covers of books. Sometimes just the sight of a tree or a sunset can smack you with the power of every tree or sunset you have ever seen and there is no way to protect yourself.This begins with a personal bit of meandering. Please feel free to skip the next few paragraphs. I have noted below where the actual review begins.
I often think of what Hendrich said to me, over a century ago, in his New York apartment. “The first rule [unlike the first rule of Fight Club,] 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. If you stick to this you will just about be ok.The Albatross Society was how Tom, Hendrich, and others like them stayed alive in the fast-aging world. They called themselves “albas” while referring to those stuck with more usual lifespans as “mayflies.”
I used the novel as my own personal time machine, traveling to places I would be interested in visiting. I debated whether to include famous characters in the novel. Especially Shakespeare. That seemed a huge risk, for obvious reasons. But I knew that if I actually traveled back to Elizabethan England the thing I would want to do most is meet Shakespeare. And after all, a lot of real human beings did actually meet Shakespeare, and he was quite an accessible figure at the time, especially as London was a far smaller place than it is today. I wanted to give a true sense of the weight of time and the idea that the past was never really lived as ‘the past.’ It was always just another present. - from a Conversation with Matt Haig in the AppendixThe Shakespearean play performance is particularly rowdy and fun. He rides with Captain Cook, who commits outrages against indigenous people in Australia, plays piano with F. Scott Fitzgerald, visits a lawless 1926 Arizona, Hollywood of that era, London and New York of the late 19th century, Australia, Tahiti and more, touching on each of the centuries in which Tom has lived. While he does look at political subjects, (such as rabble-rousing around witchcraft and bigotry, whether via superstition or a desire for economic or political gain, and Cook’s crimes) they are not a primary focus of the book.
Just as Tom does for his pupils, Matt Haig brings History to life. Matt told us that he chose teaching as an occupation for Tom because he “thought it’d be fun to have a history teacher who himself IS history”. Matt’s mum was a teacher for forty-five years and he wanted “to take this character who has lived for centuries, who has realised there is no more important or wonderful life than that of a teacher.” - from the W.H. Smith interviewHow to Stop Time is a bit of an exaggeration, as it would have been more accurate to have titled the novel How to Slow Down Time. It is not a time travel novel, per se, as the character lives in a linear chronology. His steps among several places and time periods are via memory, not magical transport. In a less long-lived mode, the “Observer-through-time” format has a character looking back over personally experienced history. This has been used quite nicely over the years, usually maxxing out at about one hundred years. Jack Crabb of Little Big Man pops to mind, as does Forrest Gump. The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, by M. Glenn Taylor, is another. Tom Hazard has a longer history to recall.
For quite a while I had wanted to tell the story of someone unfathomably old. I felt like it would be an interesting way to look at history by making it personal. I also think the best way at looking at human life is often to have a narrator who is a little bit beyond human. It’s like taking a step back from a painting to get a better view of it. I thought, for instance, it would help explore some very human things, such as how to cope with grief. If you live for centuries you are going to know about loss. - from a Conversation with Matt Haig in the AppendixTom, by nature of his peculiar genetics, is doomed to feel like, and be an outsider. This lines up with Haig’s prior work, both fictional and non, about depression, including his own. He has a knowing voice on the subject. How to Stop Time was Haig’s sixth adult novel. He had written five non-fictiOn books, including the wildly successful Reasons to Stay Alive.
…what is the point of living when you have no one to live for?
Rather than coming from a place of superior knowledge, he writes instead as an explorer, seeking especially to come to terms with depression and other mental health issues. How to Stop Time is a metaphor for the secret burden of mental health, and the profound, alienating, loneliness that it can bring. In this sense, it is a continuation of Haig’s previous novel, How to Stay Alive.-----R. H. Herron - Ep. 209: Matt Haig on Literally Writing the Multiverse