Although I have enjoyed novels by Matt Haig in the past, I would have to say, hand on heart, I have never admired them. He has a remarkable fluency to his prose, a capacity to conjure curious conceits, and boldly uses speculative forms to deal with real world issues. Yet, somehow, his work leaves me cold. With How To Stop Time, I think I now know why.
The novel has a strong premise. Tom Hazard isn’t actually a fortysomething teaching history in a school in Tower Hamlets as he is blessed with and suffers from a condition once termed “anageria”. He is actually over 400 years old, a French Huguenot who, as puberty began, realised that he aged at a different rate to the majority of humanity. He is not, as the book, winkingly states, “a sexy vampire, stuck for ever at peak virility”. But he is, he thinks, uniquely capable of teaching history, having met Samuel Johnson, F Scott Fitzgerald, Omai (the man from Tahiti painted by Joshua Reynolds) and William Shakespeare. Of course, they always meet Shakespeare. Tom has lost the one great love of his life and is searching for his daughter, who may have the same longevity. There’s also a nice French teacher in the school. Can he love again? Do I care?
Since we need conflict – the motor that drives any novel – Tom is scarred by his mother having been interrogated by witch-finders in the past and has allied himself with a group founded by Hendrich (clue to reader: German name equals bad guy) who has used his protracted lifespan to find, and help, other “albatrosses”; those different from the “mayflies” around them. It seems that various nefarious bodies are interested in the biology of their outliving. In exchange for his protection, they have several rules. Never fall in love. Change who you are every eight years. Once in a while be prepared to do a little job for Hendrich, in terms of convincing other “albas” to come into the fold, or else.
The problem with all this is not the improbability – after all, Virginia Woolf carried it off in dazzling fashion with Orlando,
and even Washington Irving managed to create the startle of a man from the past seeing our present with Rip Van Winkle. The problem is simply the sentimentality of it all. There is even – as if a focus group had tried to come up with a novel – a poor old dog that our protagonist becomes attached to; which even leads him closer to the attractive French teacher (note to film-makers: if you can’t get Natalie Portman, Audrey Tautou will do). There’s also a boy who, in Dead Poets’ Society fashion, learns to learn that learning is super.
This is not so much a novel as a plea to be on the writing team for the next series of Doctor Who: a heartbroken, sort-of immortal making things better and even (I nearly threw the book across the room at this point) in love with someone called Rose. The sentimentality is most grating when it comes to the novel’s moral Manichaeism. No character has an arc, except that the good end happily and the bad are dispatched in gruesome fashion.
What irks all the more is the novel’s propensity towards the pseudo-profound aphorism. “People you love never die”. (Err: they do). “Your life is not in vain. You have a purpose”. (Well, maybe). “Everything you need to know about right and wrong is already there. It comes as standard. It’s like music. You just have to listen”. (I take it we’re talking about Bach not Nine Inch Nails). We’re also indulged with fairly sophomoric rants about identity, change, how modern life is good but kinda bad, smells over time, and Hitler. There’s always Hitler too.
I’m going to make a point as pertinent as it is pernickety. When Tom is on work experience with Shakespeare (and I won’t go into the inelegantly dropped quotations), the Bard is smoking a pipe. There is no reference in any Shakespeare play to tobacco, pipes (unless musical ones), smoking as a habit or tamping. Shakespeare smoking is basically how you’d like to see Bill Nighy playing him, not something about the complexity of the past.
This novel is basically uncomplex. It is literary fiction for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading Paulo Coelho’s snake-oil optimism. It is as saccharine as it is sanctimonious.
How To Stop Time, by Matt Haig, Canongate, £12.99