Synopsis: I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.
Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret.
He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. It’s a life he once had, long since buried but buried secrets have a habit of catching up with you and nobody can outrun their past.
Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. Here he can teach the kids about wars and witch hunts as if he’d never witnessed them first-hand. He can try to tame the past that is fast catching up with him. The only thing Tom must not do is fall in love.
Author: Matt Haig
This review contains major spoilers for the book.
Writing this review has been tough because I’ve been doubting myself over whether I’m going to do this book justice. How to Stop Time has such an important and meaningful message, one that resonates with me on a deeply personal level. I hope you can see from this review just how much I adored this book.
I have a lot of love to give this. And I mean a lot.
Born in 1581 in France, Tom Hazard, or as he was then known as Estienne Thomas Ambroise Christophe Hazard (try saying that five times fast), should be dead in present day 2018. Except he’s not. Don’t worry, you don’t need to double check that you’re reading the contemporary novel you picked up from (insert preferred bookseller here) and not a science fiction book. No, this isn’t a time travel story. The only time travelling Tom has done is from one century to another by living through them. Tom has a rare genetic condition that means he ages at a rate much slower than the average human. While he really is 437-years-old, Tom doesn’t look a day over 40. Sounds perfect, right? How many of us have ever wished our lives could be just that little bit longer? How many people have had cosmetic surgery and have invested in anti-ageing products in a bid to remain looking youthful for as long as possible? Except, for Tom, it’s anything but perfect.
Life has not been kind to Tom, who must avoid drawing attention to himself and raising suspicion among the general public. When people don’t understand something they get scared. When people believe fear equals weakness they tend to get angry. It’s easier to get angry at someone or something else than admit you don’t understand. So every eight years Tom finds himself with a new identity, courtesy of The Albatross Society, a secret organisation dedicated to protecting the identities of all those with the same affliction as Tom. If the general public were to find out about them, there would be no telling what they would do. Experiments. Locking them up as zoo animals. What people don’t know can’t hurt them.
The themes in this book are love and loss. One of The Albatross Societies rules is that you must not fall in love. Their condition is rare. If you’re lucky enough to find someone who is like you then great, but, for the majority, the people passing Tom by are people with an average human lifespan – or ‘Mayflies’ as The Albatross Society refer to them as. How do you fall in love when you have to watch the person you care deeply for grows older with each passing day, with their bodies failing and withering away? Just because the Albatrosses, or Albas for short, do live longer doesn’t mean their hearts are made of stone. They care. They feel. Tom certainly does. Tom also falls in love. And from this love came a daughter, a daughter who inherited his condition and a daughter he hasn’t seen in several hundred years after having to abandon his wife and daughter due to the ever growing suspicions from the Mayflies about his constant youthful complexion. My heart truly broke for Tom. I could never imagine having to be forced away from my own family. Matt Haig is an incredible writer, who knows how to truly capture a mood, and a feeling, and put it into words.
The chapters alternate between Tom in the present day, where he’s living in London and teaching history at a secondary school, and Tom from the past, exploring multiple different points from within his extraordinarily long life. At first I did think Tom focused too much on his past, that he was dwelling too much on what had happened, but then when I started to think about it I realised that I do that as well. So I may only be twenty-four and I don’t have the hundreds of years that Tom has had, but I’m incredibly guilty of dwelling on the past, of all the things that have happened, both good and bad. Especially the bad. Our brains are hardwired for negativity. It’s a biological fact. I loved that about Tom. It made him feel more real. I want a character that I can relate with. I want a character that has similar thought processes to me. As someone who has suffered and still suffers to this day with severe anxiety, I can relate an awful lot to Tom as a person. I have to commend Matt Haig for writing a character that quite clearly has anxiety and depression – and who can blame him when life has been so cruel to him. Writers write about what they know, and I love the fact that Matt Haig has used his own experiences to write Tom as authentically as possible. And it’s not just Tom. There are other characters who go through similar experiences and are battling their own mental illnesses.
This is a book that’s all about learning to live while you’re alive. It’s a book that encourages you to live and not just exist. It’s a book about not allowing your past to define or stop you. I found it took me longer than usual to read this book because I kept having to stop. I would read a passage from the book and have to stop because something within those lines had hit me deeply. There’s honesty to the words Matt Haig writes and it shows.
“And, just as it takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I?”
However, what I will stress is that this book is far from perfect. There were parts to it that I disliked. For instance, I disliked how, occasionally, someone famous would crop up. How is it that Tom just happened to be in the same place as Shakespeare? As Captain Cooke? As F. Scott Fitzgerald? I feel that in this day and age we have more opportunities to meet celebrities thanks to meet and greet events, concerts and conventions, and the almighty power of the internet. I’ve been alive twenty-four years and not once have I ever met anyone famous. I’ve even been to LA. The closest I got to a celebrity was seeing their stars on the Walk of Fame. Now I’m not saying it’s impossible for Tom to have met them, but I do question how Tom managed to meet the most famous celebrities of their era. One I could believe. Two at a push. Three… not so much. It just seemed a bit absurd, and it felt like they had been added in to spice things up a little bit in case anyone was getting a bit bored with how slow some of the chapters could be.
As much as I loved the book, I did find some of the chapters slow. I felt as though some of them served no purpose in moving the story forward. But such is life. No book is perfect. No writer is perfect. What I will say is that the story is worth persevering through all the slow chapters in order to get to where the magic is happening.
Ultimately, I loved this book (could you tell?), and when I think about a book long after I’ve read the last page and shut the book is when I know that I need to shout about it from the rooftops – or in a review!
“There is only the present. Just as every object on earth contains similar and interchanging atoms, so every fragment of time contains aspects of every other. In those moments that burst alive the present lasts forever, and I know there are many more presents to live. I understand you can be free. I understand that they way you stop time is by stopping being ruled by it.’
I’d really love to know whether you’ve read this book and what you thought about it, so let me know down in the comments!