Shenanigans with a near-immortal overthinker: How To Stop Time by Matt Haig
Calling a book life-affirming is an overused cliché. In How To Stop Time, Matt Haig once again creates a novel that holds up a mirror up to life and mental health issues to show a character dealing with their problems and coping with being different. He doesn’t so much affirm life as offer up a story about the freedom to live and to really feel like you are living.
Tom Hazard looks like he is a forty-one year old History teacher in a London comprehensive. Actually, he is older – a lot older – due to a rare condition that slows down aging. He was born in the sixteenth century and played lute for Shakespeare and piano amongst the Roaring Twenties, but now he is hiding from the past, trying to stop memories from catching up with him and not daring to think about having a future. For preservation, he is not allowed to fall in love. However, the past, the present, and the future have all decided that they have a date with him and Tom finds himself facing up to who he is and what he wants from his very long life.
Haig writes with a kind of honest straightforwardness that is similar to his other books, a style which brings the character’s insecurities and thoughts right to the surface and creates an emotional book. It is from Tom’s point of view and jumps between the present and his long past in a memory style. This means that much of the book is more focused on thoughts, introspection, and inaction than events occurring (perhaps Tom should’ve had a few words with Shakespeare about Hamlet). The narrative is simple and not particularly original – person alive for centuries runs into famous people, meditates on lost love, looks for others with similar longevity – but the real selling point is the way that Haig makes it more about learning to actually live life and not being fixated on the past or panicked about the future.
There are a number of particularly endearing details and characters, such as the Tahitian Omai becoming a modern surfing star who believes in living your life to the full. Haig’s descriptions of the Roaring Twenties stand out as getting across both the all-consuming feel of the period and poking slight fun at it appearing as an epitome in a similar vein to the opening of A Tale of Two Cities. The extended appearance of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with witchhunting and Shakespeare and the plague, are less exciting, but give a good base for Tom and his views of the world.
By the ending, Haig answers his promising title and shows a character learning to reclaim the chance to live his own life how he wants to, with less fear of the future or the past. The book’s messages will resonate with overthinkers and anxious individuals wanting to escape their own headspace and live, but also anybody who enjoys a character-focused tale of love, life, and history.