In an age where time seems to race past, hurrying us towards the future, Matt Haig’s imaginative new novel How to Stop Time dares us to revel in the moment and to question the meaning of the past relationships which build our characters.
But we are in the now, and Tom Hazard is over 400 years old, though he appears around forty, suffering from a condition, which slows the aging process. In order to avoid suspicion of his youthful looks he only stays in the one place for eight years, changing identities as often as locations, and follows one simple rule: never to fall in love. Picking up work as a history teacher in a London comprehensive, Tom uses the stories of his past to teach lessons for the future, inspiring the wayward youth. Entranced by his colleague Camille but mentally held prisoner by the ideas of old acquaintance Hendrich and the memories of his own mother and daughter, Tom must stay sane as he strives to find his purpose in life.
Flitting effortlessly between now and various thens, from the witch trials of his childhood to the Spanish Civil War via the heady days of Shakespearian theatre, How to Stop Time is part-Time Traveller’s Wife, part-Forrest Gump, drawing on the best of both. Haig’s atmospheric narrative makes scenes set in the past as vivid and alive as those set in the present, and makes for a compelling tale which keeps the reader engaged until the final pages.
Although thoughtful and poignant, this novel is fun too, with sparky dialogue between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in roaring 20s’ Paris marrying a seemingly frivolous peripheral scene with a key revelation, central to the plot. Zelda’s “drunk question” regarding fears reveals she is scared of housekeeping and Scott is scared of Hemingway. And here Tom discovers he is afraid of time, though not of its passing, as the Fitzgeralds surmise:
“Grow up or crack up,” she said, after the first inhale. “The divine choices we have…”
“If only we could find a way to stop time,” said her husband. “That’s what we need to work on. You know, for when the moment of happiness floats along.”
In this exploration of loneliness, identity, love and loss, Haig demonstrates his empathy for the human condition. Like his previous outing, Reasons to Stay Alive, How to Stop Time tells of hope that keeps you going when giving up appears an easier option. Haig is making his mark as one of the key writers of his generation, and, with rumours already surfacing of a Benedict Cumberbatch film adaptation of this novel before it has even been released, How to Stop Time is testament to that.
How to Stop Time is published by Canongate Books on 6th July 2017.