IN THE acknowledgments at the end of his latest novel, Matt Haig reveals that he first had the idea for this story in 2000 while he was in the middle of a breakdown.
Back then, he wasn’t even a writer, but he did feel alienated from everyday life in a way that made it easy to imagine what an alien might feel if he, she or it moved among us, half understanding, and half wondering about these strange creatures on Water Planet 7081, these humans.
Until I got to that point, I was wondering why the novel seemed to have such emotional and comic depth. The plot, after all, is fundamentally simple, a variant on the classic “Spock in Love” story in which an emotionally straitlaced extraterrestrial incomer realises that, for all their crazy lack of logic, for all their pettiness, pride, bellicosity and short lives, human beings actually produce the occasional flashes of true, universe-dazzling originality.
The difference this time is that the alien doesn’t come, as they usually do, in peace. He’s appalled by our physical ugliness – “nose, lips, hair, ears: so much externality” – and is glad he won’t have to spend too much time amongst us.
All he has to do is to replace the Cambridge professor who has just solved the world’s greatest maths puzzle, find out who else knows about it, kill them subtly, and zoom off back across the galaxy to pick up the rest of his immortal life.
If you guess that he falls in love with the professor’s neglected wife and helps her bullied and alienated teenage son, you will not be disappointed.
Nor, however, will you notice the essential predictability of plot, if only because there are so many other things to enjoy along the journey, not least the subtle changes in characterisation as the incredible slowly shades into the credible.
From the alien’s naked (but unembarrassed) entry to our planet right through to the end, where he understands us better than we understand ourselves, this warm-hearted novel never misses a beat. «