How many lifetimes does it take to learn how to live?
Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen it all. As long as he keeps changing his identity he can stay one step ahead of his past – and stay alive.
The only thing he must not do is fall in love…
When I picked up How To Stop Time by Matt Haig, I was totally ready – unlike poor old Tom Hazard – to fall in love. Haig is such a popular author, and I’ve always really valued his perspective about mental health.
Sadly though, How To Stop Time just didn’t do it for me.
I really didn’t like it. The pacing was off, the characters under-developed, the twist so obvious as to be guessed from almost the first chapter, and the plot never more than hinted at in passing.
But I’ll get back to that.
Because for the sake of balance, I feel I should get into the parts I liked.
Structurally, it was an interesting read. Tom Hazard, as the summary says, has a rare and unusual condition that means he ages very slowly. At the beginning of How To Stop Time, Tom is “well over 400 years old”, and world-weary in a way I suppose unique to people who have lived for more than four centuries.
Following some terrible event in his life – the exact nature of which we never find out, unless I blinked and missed it – Tom has decided to start life over as a history teacher in a London secondary school. The plot jumps in time between his history lessons and the memories his classes inspire – from his experiences with witch trials in the fifteenth century to the time he met Shakespeare. It’s kind of like Slumdog Millionaire if Dev Patel were a school teacher.
Tom’s fluctuating mental health over the centuries, too, felt very realistic to me. It’s pretty easy to feel a certain level of despondency about the world – that the level you’d feel that would be amplified by hundreds of years of seeing the same patterns repeat themselves made a lot of sense. When you’re doomed to outlive (almost) everyone you care about, isolating would seem like the most sensible option to protect yourself from the pain of that.
“This is the chief comfort of being four hundred and thirty nine years old. You understand quite completely that the main lesson of history is: humans don’t learn from history. The twenty-first century could still turn out to be a bad cover version of the twentieth, but what could we do?”
The rest of it, however, I just could not get behind. From the twist you could see coming from pretty much the first chapter, to the ending in which Haig attempts to squash an entire plot into a matter of pages – the result being that most things aren’t satisfactorily tied up, and things that are, are done so far too neatly – it was quite a disappointment to me all around. It was just weak, and I’m sad about that because the premise was so promising.
His approach to his subject matter of hope, existential dread and anxiety about the future also felt heavy handed, and awkward. How To Stop Time made universal worries peculiarly unengaging – by having Tom realise the meaning of life – essentially to live in the moment – through a very underdeveloped relationship with his Freda Pinto, a sexy French teacher with epilepsy (who teaches Tom life lessons by saying things like “who knows anything about the future? I don’t know if I’ll make it through the afternoon!” (I might be paraphrasing)).
So, How To Stop Time was kind of a dud for me, but I’m glad to have ticked Haig off the to-read list.