Published December 28th 2017 by Canongate Books (first published July 6th 2017)
Author: Matt Haig
Genre: Fiction, fantasy, time travel, historical
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“I am old.”
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.
This is the first fiction book I’ve read by Matt Haig, having only previously read his Reasons to Stay Alive which I really enjoyed. When this book came out, I really wanted it, but I waited for it to come out in paperback, then found it at Tesco for £3!
I began reading it on the day I bought it, and after just the first few pages I knew I was going to enjoy it. By my second day with the book, I was over halfway in.
Our main character, and narrator, is Tom Hazard. Although, over time he has gone by many different names, but this is the one closest to the name he was born with. From the moment we meet him, he tells us he’s old but that to look at him, you wouldn’t know just how old he really is. This is because he has a ‘condition’ that means he ages slower than normal. So even though he is over 400 years old, he looks more like 40.
I love this concept. One of my favourite kind of books to read is one that explores time. Even if time isn’t at the forefront of a narrative, I’m always on the lookout for quotes that express thoughts about time. This has got plenty of them.
The format of the narrative is easy to get hooked into. Each chapter gives us a place and a time that the story is coming from. After our initial intro with Tom, we find ourselves in the past: ‘Sri Lanka, three weeks ago’. What I love about it is that it suggests a present moment that we’re not aware of yet. But at the same time it feels natural, I’m reading the book now, and so in storytelling terms, the phrase ‘three weeks ago’ makes it real. There’s not an assigned date that would become out of date depending on when the reader picked up the book…this book can be read at any time, and still be believable. Well, I guess in a decade or so this effect will be different, naturally, but for this general period of time that we’re in (iPhones, social media etc.) this book just feels like it could be very real.
“…it didn’t really matter how many years or centuries had passed, because you were always living within the parameters of your personality.”
The book builds up to the present moment, which throughout the book is known as ‘London now’. To begin with, these chapters were my favourite, because we get to know Tom’s situation even better as he navigates the modern world, and takes a job as a History teacher (which is just brilliant). But then, in the now, his memories are triggered by a number of things, and as well as giving him a headache, they give him the chance to tell his past stories. Now, I don’t like historical fiction, but this really felt like travelling in time. And it was always fun, and I never wanted to put the book down. I’d have read it all in one go if I could.
In the past, we are given the year. For example ‘London 1860’. And there’s always a lead in from the present, so you are already invested in the story, and rather than just hearing about it, you get to go there with Tom. But his narrative voice is still in the present, with all this memories up to the present moment. It’s brilliantly done.
The most incredible thing about this book is that Tom is believable. The way he talks about the past, it’s genuine. There’s a modern aspect to his way of speaking, as he’s grown and developed with the time, but he speaks of the past so naturally. I know that Haig would have had to do a lot of historical research for this, but it more than paid off.
“History isn’t something you need to bring to life. History already is alive. We are history.”
Okay, so, this is a book. So there’s conflict. I won’t give everything away, but Tom isn’t the only one with this condition. This is apparent from the start. Another one is a man called Hendrich, who is even older than Tom. He has formed a society for people with the condition: The Albatross Society. This gives people like Tom the nickname ‘albas’, and gives humans the name ‘mayflies’. This is all to do with lifespan.
It doubles as a love story, because Tom must relocate ever 8 years and can’t afford to become attached to anyone, which makes for a heartbreaking sense of loneliness but is also uplifting. The book explores the limits of love, the limits it can go to, and the limits that Tom’s situation puts on his attitude towards those around him.
“I have been in love only once in my life. I suppose that makes me a romantic, in a sense.”
I read this book with a pencil next to me so that I could underline quotes that stood out to me, and there are some really good ones. Reading this book takes you on and adventure through time, and alters your perspective of what we think of age as, and how we experience life’s trajectory. It’s inspiring, fun, and is like entering another life. I guarantee you’ll feel like you’ve visited the past once you finish reading, almost like Tom’s memories are now yours through the shared experience of this book.
Oh and yes, Tom does tell you how to stop time.
I’ll be publishing another post with all the quotes I underlined from the book.
Link to the book on Goodreads: How to Stop Time