“We’re Not Superheroes. We’re Just Old.”
What would you do if you could live forever?
Well, maybe not forever. What if you could live for hundreds of years? Like, near or even beyond a millenium? And what if you weren’t the only one? What if there was a society for people like you? No, you’re not a vampire, don’t worry! No sparkling will be done here. You actually have a disease. Or a condition, rather. At least, that’s how our main character and narrator prefers to refer to it. It’s called “Anageria”.
Not only do you live for an unseemingly long time with this condition, but you’re highly resistant to disease as well. This condition isn’t in any medical journals, we’re assured, because the condition must be kept secret. All the members of the Albatross Society must be kept secret, because there is a facility that is hunting these people down and experimenting on them for modern medical advances. Being an Albatross is dangerous. But more importantly, we’re lead to believe, it is lonely. This is because the first rule about being an Albatross is “You Must Not Fall In Love”. I’m sure you’re also not supposed to talk about Albatross Club, but that part was more inferred than directly stated.
How To Stop Time follows Tom Hazard as he jumps between the present and his long, long past. Tom broke the rules of Albatross Society before he knew what it was (and possibly before it existed). Unfortunately, Tom fell in love with a mayfly – a normal person – but had a daughter with the same condition as him. We are constantly tossed between the past, in which we learn Tom’s story, and the present, where Tom is struggling to find his daughter and battling his inner suspicions about Hendrich, leader of the Albatross Society.
“The Longer You Live, The More You Realize That Nothing Is Fixed.”
One of the most unfortunate aspects about Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time is that Tom isn’t all that likeable. It’s been four hundred years since his wife died of the plague and he’s still dealing with that grief. Much of the book is him dealing with that grief, as well as the guilt of not knowing whether or not his daughter is still alive. He’s also carrying a lot of guilt over the death of his mother, who was charged as a witch when the community they were living in began to notice that Tom had stopped aging. Yes, these things are traumatic, but at four hundred and thirty years old we’re reading Tom’s thoughts with all the angst of a teenager. I would expect someone to have lived for so long to sound and act a little more refined given how long he’s had to deal with his emotions. Instead we’re granted with all the emotional range of a fifteen year old dealing with their first heartbreak, only with a slightly better vocabulary.
Eventually, Tom runs to London after doing a job for Hendrich. These jobs generally consist of finding other “Albas” and convincing them to join the Albatross society. Those who do join are welcomed with open arms. Those that don’t, well, we’ll get to that later.
Tom takes a job as a history teacher, which is smarmy and ironic in all the right ways. It also seems kind of dangerous if he were to ever slip and reveal himself, although the likelihood of anyone believing him seems rather nil. It is here that Tom meets Camille, the French teacher, and he starts to fall for her almost immediately. It seems Camille is also interested, which both delights and terrifies Tom as it means someone is now close enough to learn his secret.
Time Keeps on Slippin’ Slippin’ Slippin’ Into The Future’.
Just as this part of the story starts to build toward something though, Haig almost completely derails it with interference from Hendrich. Turns out that an old (old old old old) friend of Tom’s has resurfaced. Omai, a native Haitian that Tom met in his travels with Captain Cook, has been gaining traction as a popular surfer in Australia and apparently his noticeable lack of aging has been drawing attention. Hendrich wants Tom to personally go and convince Omai to join the Albatross society. Tom goes, and it is here in the last ten percent of the novel that most every plot line this book was drunkenly meandering toward concludes.
That’s right. Most of this book is more or less just Tom railing between grief and annoying name dropping of notable historical figures as he jumps through time and around the world. This wasn’t just disappointing. It was frustrating.
In the span of what was probably less than ten pages we learn the truth about Hendrich when Tom refuses to kill Omai, which really wasn’t even a question that was being asked by anyone save the reader. We learn about Marion, what has happened to her, and where she’s been all this time. We get a heart to heart with Tom and Omai that I think was intended to sound meaningful, but I was honestly getting so frustrated at the book’s progression it was hard to infer any meaning out of the rushed dialogue and events as they collided so quickly.
Essentially what we get to is a happy ending. The bad guy that we weren’t really sure was the bad guy is dead. Omai gets to live the life he wants. Tom gets to live the life he wants, and I guess…that’s it?
“The Key To Happiness Is Finding The Lie That Suits You Best.”
If this review is confusing I apologize. I’m trying to make sense of the novel still myself if I’m to be honest. I don’t want to say that the book was all bad. I enjoyed the historical aspects of it, jumping back to all the different eras Tom lived in was fascinating. In a way. The problem in the end is that, because Tom is our avatar in these experiences, we don’t fully get to enjoy them as he’s so bogged down by his emotions and guilt. We’re more fascinated about Tom’s life than he is, and we can’t even make him enjoy it because you can’t slap fictional characters through the pages of their own books.
I wanted nothing more than to tell Tom he was weak and pathetic, and needed to get over himself. He keeps telling the audience he’s trying to find Marion, but not once in the book does he actively do anything to look for her. He leaves it to Hendrich. He should leave before he falls too much in love with Camille, but he doesn’t. He should tell her how he feels, but he doesn’t. Not really. The only time Tom makes a final decision is when he refuses to kill Omai. Yet in the past Tom has killed when people refused to join the Albatross Society. He’s been a leaf in the wind all this time until now, and we don’t really have anything deep to go off of other than Omai was once Tom’s friend and he doesn’t want to kill him.
Tom is a mess, and not even a fun mess. Just a frustrating one. He’s painfully uninteresting, which is awful given all the things he’s done and seen. He’s so boring and two dimensional that I can’t even hate him, I just want to put him away in a room where nothing can hurt him again and – also – where I don’t have to hear him anymore.
Matt Haig accomplished something strange with How To Stop Time in that he gave one of the most interesting conditions and experiences to someone that is utterly and devastatingly insipid.
How To Stop Time Indeed
I feel like Haig might have set the reader up for that in the beginning of the book with this thought from Tom as he speaks of Hendrich:
“In cases such as Hendrich, it didn’t really matter how many years or decades or centuries had passed, because you were always living within the parameters of your personality. No expanse of time or place could change that. You could never escape yourself.”
Even though Tom is talking about the leader of the Albatross Society, I get the feeling that we’re being warned about how Tom isn’t that much different. The story certainly says as much even right up to the final pages. Does Tom grow beyond what we learn of him in the end? Maybe. He does finally “get the girl” in the sense, and he finds his daughter, but it’s here where the book ends. Haig has this way of finding something interesting to add to the story and then cutting it short, as if he too is afraid of something.
Perhaps I’m being harsh, but I don’t really think so. While reading How To Stop Time I only wanted to speed time up so I could finish this book and get on to something else as quickly as possible.
How To Stop Time is published by Viking Press on February 6th, 2018 and written by Matt Haig.
This review is based on an ARC copy given to HeyPoorPlayer from the publisher.