#Book Review: How To Stop Time

Author: Matt Haig

How To Stop Time is another sci-fi book by Matt Haig with a deeper meeting, just like his most recent The Midnight Library. In the case of The Midnight Library, as I wrote already, the book tackles depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts in a compelling way that reaches a wider audience with an ultimate message that life is worth living. In How To Stop Time, Haig again provides a deeper meaning by tackling human grief and loss.

Grief is tackled through longevity because the main character in this book, Tom Hazard, is 439 years old due to a condition identified as anageria, thus a person having this condition is ageing much slower than an average human. Tom becomes part of a secret Albatross Society that looks after ‘albas’ or people with this condition, and this also means moving every eight years to conceal the fact one is not ageing and drawing attention, which can create issues and place albas in danger. Danger is something Tom sadly knows well because throughout history his family suffered because of him and his youthfulness including witchcraft charges. Interestingly, Haig – through the voice of Hendrix (the founder of the Albatross Society) – makes an interesting point that society did not change much from the Middle Ages, there is no witch drowning or burning but witchcraft still exists in a different form. In addition to that, the danger seems to be coming also from science and a mysterious institute in Berlin as well as other biotech institutes around the world, which are researching the ageing process and trying to slow down human ageing. Albas would be perfect research objects for this endeavour, particularly because they also do not get ill in the same way humans do. This is an ecofeminist moment in the book because some ecofeminist works have tackled witchcraft and argued that science can be the enemy of women who were historically healers and accused of witchcraft at the time men were developing modern science. In this book, science would capture albas to test them to develop medicines for tackling ageing. Very interesting.

Albas get headaches because of too many memories, which was an interesting touch and this is, in a way, a book of memories. The chapters are short and present Tom’s memories spanning a time of 500 years because Tom was born in 1581 but the book also happens in the present day and the author narrates his life of memories including how he is navigating the world of social media, changes in technology and society, and the fact prejudices and the lack of understanding never changed. Tom is also searching for his daughter Marion who is also an alba and left her mother Rose during the 1660s to avoid danger.

How To Stop Time is also a love story because Tom still loves his wife Rose with whom he tried to live during the 1660s in London and I found Tom’s descriptions of London then and now very compelling. This is even more interesting to someone like me who lived in London and loves the city up to the present day. It is the only city I always want to go back to, even for a one-day visit and in my 10 years in Leeds, I went to London several times a year. Literally, any opportunity to visit, I took it. I also lived in Hackney where Tom and Rose lived so reading about the old Hackney and picturing how it is today was very interesting and compellingly written.

There are also humorous elements in the book. I cracked down laughing at the following statement,

“One thing that remained constant across centuries, has been the desire for a British person to fill a silence with talk of the weather, and whenever I have lived there, I was no exception to this rule” (p. 34, Kindle).

This is so true, and it was really funny to read. The worst part is that I became like the British in this respect so when I feel I need to say something, either in the UK, now when I am in the US, or when travelling to Europe, weather is where I go. You can’t get it wrong with the weather lol

Tom’s story is an interesting one. A man from French nobility moved with his mother to St Albans in England after his father was killed due to differences in religious views (Catholicism vs Protestantism). In line with the author’s focus on personal decision-making as decisive for our lives, which is ever more present in the Midnight Library published after this book but which I read first, Tom’s mother made a wrong choice to come to a quiet village instead of going to London because Tom not ageing drew unwanted and much more dangerous attention than what they would have received in London where Tom later faced hostility but to a far lesser degree. Tom later leaves, ends up in London, and falls in love with Rose with whom he gets a daughter named Marion but after hostility because of his youthfulness and accusations of sinister forces helping him keep his youth, he decides to leave but does come back to see Rose and then later spends centuries grieving after her. We learn about his life over several centuries and many places he lived, and many things he did including meeting and working with Shakespeare, James Cook and other famous people. He also played piano during the roaring 1920s in Paris, Iceland, the US, etc.

I also liked Haig’s depiction of the US, “America made you think in the future tense” (p. 95, Kindle). This is exactly how I see America, as exciting and future-oriented and there is something here that gives you hope that everything is possible. I am not sure what it is, maybe the openness of people and the fact anyone can immigrate and succeed somehow. Equally, I liked that Tom was born in France but always considered England home and came back to it, including the present in How To Stop Time where he works as a history teacher in a school near Chapel Hill where he used to live with Rose. England was always a home for me, that is how people make you feel in that country. You are always struggling but so do the English and you end up struggling with them, but it is just something about that country that makes you feel welcome. Almost like magic so I totally connected with Tom here.

How To Stop Time is also a book of adventure because Tom is doubting the sincerity of Hendrix who sends him on assignments every eight years to convince other albas to join the society and agree to move every eight years and keep hidden. Tom ultimately, towards the end of the book, has to choose between continuing to fear and hide or potentially living in the present and seeing how it goes…

Overall, How To Stop Time is a story of love, grief and adventure, all in one along with sci-fi of never ageing person living across many centuries. It is beautifully and skillfully written, and I love that the author is writing about serious things such as love and grief in a genre that can attract the attention of many and hopefully, make them reconsider how they live their lives and treat one another.

Thank you for reading!

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