Book review: “How to Stop Time” by Matt Haig

by Rebecca Henderson Palmer on October 2, 2017

Tom Hazard may seem like a normal, unassuming 41 year old history teacher, but he is, in fact, 439 years old. Tom and many others like him have a condition called “anageria”, the opposite of “progeria“, where aging is severely slowed. Tom looks only a fraction of his true age and never gets infectious illnesses or other age-related disorders. Tom is a first-hand witness of Shakespeare, Cook’s expedition, the Jazz Age, and many other historic occasions. In his early years, he falls in love with a woman and has a daughter, Marion, who is afflicted with the same disorder as he. Tom learns early on how scared, suspicious people treat those who are not like them, and he’s forced to abandon his family and live a peripatetic life, moving every 8 or so years so that no one is ever the wiser. It is in the late 19th century when he is approached by the Albatross Society, a sort of union of fellow “Albas” (those individuals with anageria). In return for their financial help and worldwide relocation network, Tom is expected to recruit for the society, which demands that Albas join the society (for their own safety and those of the other Albas) or face being permanently silenced. Desperate, alone, and afraid, Tom agrees with one request. He wants the society to help him find his long lost daughter. But as the search for Marion spans hundreds of years and Tom must acknowledge the full power and influence the society wields, he questions his purpose, his commitments, and his whole approach to living.

The premise of this novel is so alluring, it’s difficult to ignore. The execution was rather disappointing though. Tom spends the vast majority of the book in a depressed haze. Moving so often, seeing loved ones age and die, and living under a veil of strict secrecy about yourself over the course of several hundreds of years certainly takes its toll. Tom is ordered by the society never to fall in love and never to make personal attachments, but that is just not human nature, and so Tom suffers greatly. He is tormented by memories of his past, constricted by his present, and uncertain about his future, which makes for very sad stuff. Every once in awhile, Mr. Haig includes some real gems about life, time, and love, but the majority of the book is one hugely sad experience after another. Fortunately (and unfortunately for the reader), Tom’s problems clear up very quickly – I mean in the last 50 or so pages, everything “magically” changes for the better. There are plenty of profound little insights sprinkled throughout – the end, in particular, contains a touching perspective on life – but trudging through hundreds of pages to reach them leaves you unsatisfied. Apparently this is slated to become a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the near future. I never, ever say this, but I will here:  wait for the movie on this one.

Amazon link is here.

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