“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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“The Last Family In England” by Matt Haig (2004)

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“Dogs like to talk.”

Broadly speaking, if we’re sticking with the insistence that you can split the population into “dog people” and “cat people”, I fall down unapologetically on the side of cats. I’ve nothing against dogs at all – I will always fuss over a dog if given the opportunity, and some of my friends have utterly adorable dogs – but if I had to have one of the two, I’d opt for a cat. However, this weekend I read a book about dogs. Or, more accurately, a book narrated by a dog.

Prince is a black Labrador, the central point of the Hunter family. He ensures that he upholds the Labrador Pact, a solemn oath sworn by all Labradors to keep the Family together for the sake of all humanity. Prince keeps a careful eye on Adam and Kate, and their teenage children Hal and Charlotte. But not all is well in the land of dogs. Some of the other breeds, led by the Springer Spaniels, have turned against the old ways and now seek out a hedonistic lifestyle, rather than trying to protect a Family. Prince, however, is earnest in his insistence that the Pact must be upheld, and he’s mentored by Henry, an old Labrador who knows a thing or two about it.

Things take a turn for the worse in the Hunter household, however, when Simon, an old friend of Adam’s, moves back into the area, and Adam finds himself tempted by this man’s wife Emily. What only Prince can detect, however, is that Simon’s scent seems to be on Kate an awful lot since his return too. Their dog, a Springer Spaniel mongrel called Falstaff, is determined to lead Prince astray, but Prince knows his duty. He must keep the Family together so he can help save humanity. Duty over all…

This is Matt Haig’s first book, and already there are the hallmarks of the supremely honest and magical writer he is today. A lesser author would have dogs speaking to one another in English when humans were out of earshot, but here, all the sniffs and tail wags and barks that dogs make constitute a language of their own. Dogs can smell emotion on one another, and on humans, and use wagging as a way to do anything from communicating annoyance with their own kind to calming down a potentially explosive situation in the family home. The book is centered around a nuclear family seen from a slant, which seems to be a common theme in Haig’s work. The Radleys features a family of suburban vampires, and The Humans deals with an alien taking over one of the family roles. Haig has an amazing way with truthfulness, and isn’t afraid to bring up the nastier aspects of humanity. Looking at them through the viewpoint of a dog makes them all the more interesting.

The dogs are really the stand out characters here, with none of them being anthropomorphised any more than necessary. They have their own codes and systems, chiefly the Labrador Pact, and each of them makes for good company, even if they do broadly subscribe to cliches (Labradors are loyal, Rottweilers are aggressive, etc). That would be my only complaint on that front, and you can even make a good case that that doesn’t ring true for the whole tale, but I can’t go into that more without spoiling things. The humans are vastly flawed, as all good characters should be, with Hal and Charlotte typical teenagers and Adam and Kate the struggling parents, trying to cope with their responsibilities as parents while their relationship seems to be breaking down, a process that appears to be speeding up thanks to the interference of Simon and Emily.

The novel’s ending is beyond heartbreaking, and really rather a brave option to have chosen. In context, it makes sense, but there remain many unanswered questions that we aren’t allowed to know answers to. The family will continue to make their mistakes, and Prince has learnt that perhaps the Labrador Pact isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I wouldn’t recommend this book to you if you’re prone to crying easily, but it remains a raw, beautiful and tragic tale. I adored it.

Good boy.

“The Radleys” by Matt Haig (2010)

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Every family has secrets.

“It is a quiet place, especially at night.”

Vampires have a long and fascinating history, from the tales of blood-sucking demons of ancient Persia, via Bram Stoker’s famous addition to the canon Dracula, up to sparkly immortal teenagers of Twilight. It’s always fun to see these kinds of monsters turn up where you least expect them too, and so suburban England is perhaps the last place you’d think there might be any vampires. Oh, how wrong you’d be…

Peter and Helen Radley look like pretty normal people. Sure, they may be a little insular, but they seem harmless enough. Their teenage children, Clara and Rowan, though are a bit odd. Often sickly and slathered in sun cream no matter the time of year, both insomniacs with a distaste for garlic and a fondness for the macabre, they’re considered by their peers to just be strange. One night, Clara is attacked by another student on the way home and her reaction would perhaps seem a little over the top. By that time, however, it is too late and Peter and Helen must tell their children what they’ve tried to hide for them for their whole lives – the Radleys are vampires.

Now they know they should be drinking blood, Rowan and Clara begin doing so (although Rowan with some trepidation at first) and start learning about their history. With fresh blood now inside them, they become stronger and undergo changes in personality and appearance. Things may have gone alright, if not for the arrival of Peter’s brother Will, a practicing vampire who has become sloppy of late and killing people in a more obvious manner, and often from the back of his camper van. But once you invite a vampire inside, it’s very hard to get them to leave, and Helen is determined that he should before secrets are revealed and their quiet little suburban life is ripped apart.

Matt Haig is a great writer and I’ve covered both his fiction and non-fiction on here before. The Radleys appeals to me firstly because of the sheer Englishness of the whole thing (a friend of mine this week said that all my writing is deeply English too, which isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned) despite the fantastical elements. I also love the juxtaposition of the mundane with the magical. Haig delves into the lore of vampires in this universe. They aren’t immortal, but can live for a couple of centuries, faking their deaths and continuing on in a new guise later (Lord Byron is stated to have been a vampire who did this and only died in the late twentieth century). There is a difference between vampires who actively suck blood – and often kill – and those who abstain, such as the Radleys. And certain branches of the police are fully aware of the existence of vampires and there is a special branch of the force armed with crossbows to deal with errant members of the community.

The science of vampirism is mostly brushed over, but that’s how it should be. Going too deep into it would, I think, take away some of the much needed mystery, but instead uses the old lore in a modern setting and showing how society has changed. For example, while people aren’t going around swinging cloves of garlic at one another, it makes eating a Thai salad something of a risky endeavour.

But as much as it’s about vampires and fantastic powers, it’s really about being human. The Radleys are all perfectly nice people and just want to be accepted in their community but allowed to have a private life. They feel love and hate and envy and pride like the rest of us, but the primary difference, aside from the blood-sucking, seems to be that they have to deal with a lot more temptation. All the characters are tempted throughout the novel, mostly by the thought of renegading on their promise to live a blood-free life, but for other reasons too. Peter is tempted by a flirtatious neighbour, and Helen is tempted with memories of her past that have recently come back in ways she had never dreamed.

I expected gore, and I expected wonder, and I got both, but I didn’t expect such a charming tale of a family who simply want to be allowed to live. A disarmingly sweet novel for anyone who feels their family is a bit weird.

“Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig (2015)

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reasons“Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen.”

Mental illness still carries something of a stigma in our society. Perhaps because the effects are not immediately so obvious than they are with, say, a broken leg or a third degree burn, some people are still inclined to think that they aren’t real. However, depression, anxiety and the whole plethora of mental conditions available to humanity are incredibly real, particularly for those suffering from them.

I’m never going to be so arrogant as to assume I know what it’s like to suffer from a mental illness. I’ve brushed up against something that may have been depression, and if I was to qualify whatever issues I have now, I’d say it’s something akin to anxiety, but I’ve never been formally diagnosed with anything so I’m always wary to use the terms and claim myself to be something I’m not. Nonetheless, much as you don’t need to be a woman to read Animal, you don’t need to have depression to read Reasons to Stay Alive.

Matt Haig is an man who I feel I know better than I do. I’ve only actually read one of his novels so far, The Humans, but adored it beyond measure. I think following him on Twitter does a lot for feeling I know him, and indeed this book does too. His other novels are now on my Amazon wishlist. In this book, Haig talks about his struggle with depression. One day, while he and his then-girlfriend Andrea were living and working in Ibiza, he quite suddenly collapsed into a pit of despair that he was entirely unable to climb out of. The book meanders through his life story as he details his childhood, his depression and his recovery, because recover he does.

Haig knows that depression is not forever, and while maybe it can never go away for good, it can be fought, and it can be controlled. His words are, frankly, beautiful. His writing is so raw and honest, and you can’t but love him and wish him well. You’re so proud of him. And you’re so proud of everyone who has struggled with the Black Dog, who has fought through this storm, and come out the other side a more resilient person. Amongst some very private personal details, Haig also fills us in on the primary symptoms of depression and anxiety, deals with famous people who have suffered from it and shown how it doesn’t have to debilitate you – Buzz Aldrin, Carrie Fisher, Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana and Stephen Fry all suffer or suffered from mental illnesses, to name five, and our culture reveres them all – as well as listing off a general collection of helpful pieces of advice that can make things more bearable.

He also deals with the important issue of being a man with depression. It might not feel like there needs to be a distinction made between men and women on this front, but he points out that while more women are diagnosed with depression, more men commit suicide, which is strongly linked to having depression. Why is this? Although he doesn’t go into it in much detail, it is suggested that this is because society expects men to be tough. “Boys don’t cry” as the old saying goes. Utter rubbish. Toxic masculinity seems to force men to keep their true feelings inside as to show that you’re struggling is to show a weakness, and men must not be weak. Sexism does damage in both directions.

I have little to say about this book that hasn’t already been said by other people. Joanna Lumley called it “a small masterpiece that might even save lives”; the Rev Richard Coles declared it “should be on prescription”. Jo Brand, Stephen Fry, Michael Palin, S J Watson and Simon Mayo all give it great reviews, and I’m inclined to trust and agree with the lot of them. It’s not often a book lives up to the hype, but this one certainly does.

Matt Haig has done something wonderful, and I would encourage everyone to read this and remind themselves that while life might get tough at times – Lord knows mine has been a struggle this week – there are plenty of reasons to stay alive.