Matt Haig often takes an outsider’s view of the world. In his debut novel The Last Family in England, the main character was the family dog. In The Humans, Haig looked at the world through the eyes of an alien trying to understand humanity. He takes a similar tack but from a very different angle in How to Stop Time. While The Humans was about placing humanity in space, How to Stop Time is about looking at people from outside the realm of time.
Tom Hazard is an “albatross”. Born in 1581, he has a condition which stopped him ageing at a normal rate at around thirteen. Since then he has aged at one fifteenth the normal speed. So that in the present he is 439 years old but still looks like he is in his forties. Hazard’s condition means he is always on the move, trying not to be found out by starting fresh every eight years in a new location. But he is also beholden to a shadowy organisation of Albatrosses, blackmailed into carrying out missions for their leader Hendrich with a promise of finding his missing daughter Marion.
The narrative skips effortlessly between various time periods. Tom works for Shakespeare, he sails with Captain Cook, he meets F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, he runs into Charlie Chaplin and so on. And while it does sometimes feels like a who’s who of history, Haig’s narrative has a lightness that helps him get away with it. And the whole narrative is grounded in Tom’s current job as a history teacher in a London high school, a stonesthrow from where he lived and loved back in the seventeenth century.
How to Stop Time is a deeply humanist book, well observed and interested in exploring the human condition from a slightly fantastical angle. In particular, Haig is interested in exploring the way time can change the way we perceive events but also the way events or feelings can change the way that we perceive time.
This review first appeared in Aurealis #104, Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, www.aurealis.com.au