“How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig (2017)

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“I am old.”

It was years ago when I first picked up a Matt Haig book, The Humans, thinking it sounded like a funny concept. I wasn’t prepared for what a profoundly wise and beautiful book it was, nor that he would become such an important part of my life, and the lives of countless other readers. I’ve plowed through his stuff since, and we finally now arrive at his latest offering, How to Stop Time. Everyone else seems to have read this a couple of months ago, so I’m a bit behind, but nonetheless, here it is. And it was worth waiting for.

Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and is still alive in 2017, although only looks about forty years old. He is an alba, a person born with a condition that means they age very slowly. It is a difficult life and one that involves having to constantly move around and change identity so people don’t notice that you don’t age, a task made all the more difficult by the modern world.

Tom works, reluctantly, with the Albatross Society who find other albas and protect them from scientists who would long to learn the secret of advanced lifespans, but he’s had enough and asks to be retired. He takes up a position teaching history at a London school, where he finds himself smitten with the beautiful French teacher Camille. But Camille is sure she recognises Tom from somewhere – somewhen – else, and Tom is reminded of the fact that any “mayfly” (normally aging human) who finds out about the albas tends not to have their lives cut even shorter…

One of the risks of writing books about people who have spent a long time in our history is the temptation to have them stumble across every major historical figure and befriend them. Haig resists this, and it is far more a story of the ordinary people. However, that’s not to say there aren’t famous cameos, but they are kept to a respectable minimum. Tom works for Shakespeare briefly, and travels to Australia with Captain Cook, but otherwise his interactions with history’s great and good are downplayed. He meets the Fitzgeralds in a French bar in the 1920s, and the Dr Hutchinson he meets in 1891 was a real man, but most everyone else is thoroughly normal.

In the same manner as the non-fiction series of history books by Ian Mortimer, history is brought to life by these interactions with the “ordinary people”. We experience witch hunts, plague, the jazz age, voyages of discovery and Elizabethan entertainment from the ground level, with descriptions that conjure up all the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Haig paints an immersive, exciting world, and it’s an honour to be able to join him in exploring it.

As with everything Matt Haig writes, it’s phenomenally profound and beautiful with a lot to say about the nature of humanity, particularly with how we don’t change, loss, love and aging. It’s bang up to date, with mentions of fake news and Donald Trump, and Tom’s worry that the 21st century is just turning into a cheap copy of the 20th. Via Tom, Haig argues that humanity has not advanced in a straight line from idiocy to enlightenment, but that it’s been more of a rollercoaster, although there’s a fear we’re heading into a new Dark Ages, with new susperstitions and witch hunts under different names with different targets happening once again. There is, however, in there somewhere a sense of hope, and an exploration of why we should keep on living and trying to better ourselves. One line I adored, as a bibliophile, was, “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

And with people like Matt Haig still writing, I feel the world is a little safer still.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Life After God” by Douglas Coupland (1994)

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life after God“I was driving you up to Prince George to the home of your grandfather, the golf wino.”

For centuries, religion and faith in an almighty were central factors of the way life worked. Church was important, prayer was necessary, and no one had come along yet that had really had a convincing enough alternative. However, over the last couple of hundred years, and in the last few decades in particular, things have changed. Society is less interested in organised religion and is more enthralled by blockbuster movies and bargain stores. So what happens to us in a world that is now run by Hollywood rather than the holy word? Coupland is back with a few short stories detailing some struggling people.

In these eight short stories, Coupland gives us a collection of nameless narrators, each struggling to cope with loss, loneliness and a lack of emotion. Many of them lament the loss of God from their lives, while others are simply struggling to come to terms with growing up and the modern experience. They’re all seeking out something they’ve lost, or simply trying to escape.

Stories cover a man whose wife has fallen out of love with him, a man lost in the desert trying to hide a stash of illegal steroids, a man who has found himself in a tent in the middle of the forest, and a whole group of people detailing where they were and what they were doing during the end of the world.

Like all of Coupland’s stuff, he’s right on the money with how the world works. He is phenomenally smart and can get some truly profound thoughts out that others can only dream of imagining. As I’ve quoted his work in my other reviews of his books, it would be a shame not to here as well, although narrowing the quotes down to just a few is nigh-on impossible.

“Sometimes you can’t realise you’re in a bad mood until someone else enters your orbit.”

“The only activities I could think of that humans do that have no other animal equivalent were smoking, body-building and writing. That’s not much, considering how special we seem to think we are.”

“…I realized that once people are broken in certain ways they can’t ever be fixed, and this is something nobody ever tells you when you are young, and it never fails to surprise you as you grow older, as you see the people in your life break one by one.”

While this isn’t my favourite Coupland – wasn’t after the first read and still isn’t now – it remains a beautiful, hopeful breath of air and is a vital part of his catalogue. If ever you feel that you life has lost its meaning, read this and you’ll immediately feel less alone.