When I was asked to review Matt Haig’s latest book, I have to admit I was quite excited. I loved his last novel, How To Stop Time – an intriguingly written example of dystopian fiction. What I hadn’t realised, when I agreed to review this one, was that it was a self-help book based on the author’s own battle with anxiety and depression and the tools he uses to deal with those conditions.
Of course, I should have known: his previous work, Reasons To Stay Alive – a bestseller on many a list after its publication in 2015 – delved back into the dark period in his 20s when, by his own admission, he almost killed himself while living in Ibiza.
This latest book is beautifully written and for anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety, Haig’s descriptions are chillingly accurate. I’m just not sure how or why anyone decided to commission it in 2018.
On the surface, Haig has some perfectly sensible suggestions for those struggling with mental health issues: get better sleep; stop using technology – especially social media; quit Googling medical symptoms. However, none of it is exactly groundbreaking. It is as if he stopped time – perhaps turning the clock back around 2007 or so – and had this sudden epiphany that our busy, technology-driven modern lifestyles are contributing to the huge rise in anxiety and depression.
For Haig himself, it cannot have been an easy book to write, and for that I commend him. But it does, possibly, feel a little as if his publisher has goaded him into reliving his most difficult times to create a sequel to what turned out to be a popular mental health tome for purely commercial reasons.
That is not to say that I believe Haig wrote it for commercial reasons. On the contrary, I think he truly believes he has something to say about the anxiety epidemic.
In form the book is creative: at times, it is Haig at his best. Parts of it are written as straightforward, almost academic chapters. Others are two or three page lists (one, entitled “Places I Have Had Panic Attacks”, includes “In the BBC News green room” and “On an aeroplane”), while there are also what are essentially single-page poems, such as “An ode to social media”.
There are no fewer than six straight pages – in one chapter alone – of tweets from random members of the public who answered his question “Is social media good or bad for your mental wellbeing?” As you can imagine, there was a variety of responses – I’m just not sure I needed to read any of them on paper.
It is highly likely that this book will end up being a summer bestseller. It’s just not for me.
Notes On A Nervous Planet, by Matt Haig, Canongate, £12.99. Matt Haig is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 17 August