Book Review: How to Stop Time (Matt Haig)

It should not be considered a spoiler in any shape or form to relate that the answer to inquiry inherent within the title of Matt Haig’s offering transpires to equate to the maxim that is ‘live in the present’. The way that the author reaches this statement is by way of an examination of characters who live with extreme longevity. The device allows for investigation into identity, loss, and the various rationalisations of necessarily keeping others at arm’s length or accepting them and being accepted by them. Haig’s writing is accessible, quick-paced and assured, and it is evident that he has enjoyed the process of writing. A work such as this does, therefore, embrace a grand sweep; however, in such sweep there are the inevitable trade-offs — in this case, a certain deficit of characterisation and scene setting.

How to Stop Time (Canongate, 2017) has one Estienne Thomas Ambroise Christophe Hazard (mostly known as Tom Hazard throughout) as its narrator. Tom was born in France in 1581: a Huguenot Protestant who escaped persecution in his homeland, arriving in rural Suffolk with his mother. He is still alive today, or the near-future today, at 439 years of age. Herein lies the basic set-up. We might, at first, consider this as some repeated Highlander or vampire fantasy; however, Haig sets us straight from the outset by briefly describing a medical condition he calls anageria: that is, a slow-ageing process, roughly equating to one year of Tom’s biological advancement to fifteen of everyone else’s; or, rather, everyone else but those like Tom. As the story progresses, we discover that there are a significant number of those (not so much suffering from, as such) living with the anageria condition. Chief amongst these is Hendrich Pietersen, who is centuries older than Tom himself. For over two hundred years Tom has managed to exist, following the death of his partner, Rose, in 1623. Then, in 1891, Hendrich becomes aware of him and draws him into the Albatross Society. Albatrosses (or, albas) are Hendrich’s term for those with the anageria condition (‘mayflies’ are the usual, mundane humans), and Hendrich feels it necessary to keep secret the fact that those albas exist. He has various conspiracy theories in mind that there are organisations wishing to experiment and otherwise make use of the anageric of the world.

Hendrich’s deal to those recruited to the Albatross Society is that, in exchange for all manner of shady and clandestine support in acquiring new identities, work positions and places to live, every eight years (people start to notice, after a certain short while, that albas aren’t ageing in the same way that normal people do), those recruits are expected to fulfil a mission in recruiting other, newly discovered, anagerics. Via Hendrich’s machinations, Tom lives various lives around the world (in Toronto, Iceland, Boston, and Paris, for example). In the present day, wanting a more ordinary life, Tom seeks to return to London (where he lived with Rose and, for a brief time, their young daughter, Marion). In the present day, Tom becomes a history teacher at a secondary school, a stone’s throw from where he spent his early years with Rose. Thus Haig is able to explore the notion of history being taught by someone who was actually there. The literary ruse also allows for an examination of time, social change, and the lack of societal learning, on the whole, in the cyclical repetitions of mistakes made and history not being properly learnt from.

In the background of all of Tom’s considerations is the not insignificant matter of Marion. She is known to be anageric too and Tom does not know for certain if she still lives but he is ever on the search for her. Hendrich makes full use of this, Tom’s torment, and makes promises to the latter about finding her as another means of maintaining his engagement with the Albatross Society and its purposes. Hendrich’s society is not, however, all that he purports it to be. In the course of Tom’s work at the school, he meets a French teacher, Camille, who (after four hundred years of singledom and still pining for Rose) he eventually discovers himself more and more drawn to. With Camille turns the author’s inquiry towards the present, rather than with his main character’s hitherto all-consuming preoccupation with the past.

Tom Hazard lives a long and adventurous life. In the course of his various travels and identities, he works for William Shakespeare, and he meets Captain Cook, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charlie Chaplin, amongst others. He is tormented by a witchfinder (William Manning, who is responsible for murdering his mother), he meets a Tahitian islander, Omai, who is also anageric and who he travels to Australia to meet again, in the present, Omai now being an internet-renowned surfer. At this point in review proceedings, however, it must be noted that although Tom Hazard is 439 years old and has experienced such fulsome variety, there is no great feel for someone who might conceivably be 439 years old: that is to say, Tom Hazard is Tom Hazard, albeit sometimes with a different name, wherever and whenever he is. He is Tom in 1599, with Rose, and he is Tom playing piano in Paris in 1928, as he is Tom in the South Pacific in the late 1700s.

For a story primarily focused and titled with time, Haig also commits the cardinal sin of making temporal errors, not just once but several times. For example, he states variously that, in the present day, Tom is 439 years of age, and then, early on this number is miscalculated; later, he presents the beginning of the lead character’s meeting with Omai, with the former setting sail from Plymouth in 1768, but a little over a dozen pages later, Tom is in Tahiti, being asked to set light to Omai’s house, one year earlier than he apparently set sail; we are told, directly and early on, when Tom goes to see Rose again on her death-bed in 1623 that he hasn’t seen her since 1603, yet their daughter Marion is born some years later and the family are in Canterbury in the years around 1616/7. If these temporal errors are evident to this reader, then better editing prior to publishing would surely have rectified such details. In similar fashion, Haig’s enjoyment of writing this tale has clearly escaped the editorial eye in other details: in the aforementioned scene in Plymouth, 1768, the author writes that: ‘The story of how I met Omai began on a rainy Tuesday in March on the cobbles of Plymouth harbour’; one page later, and still within the same scene, Haig writes about how two men ‘now stopped still amid the busy harbour, near crates of speckled grey freshly killed fish, shining in the June sunlight’.

Scene-setting would not appear to be the prime concern in Haig’s writing in this offering. A few locations notwithstanding (the description of Hendrich’s apartment at the Dakota, New York, in 1891, outside which, almost a century later, John Lennon was shot; the slim sense of the Australian coast where Omai lives, for example), the laying down of visual imagery is fairly sparse throughout. The reader is left to construct a personal idea of, say, late sixteenth and early seventeenth century London (even with due regard to the accepted notion that an author cannot do everything for the reader, simply stating that there are various market traders and that, on the whole, the olfactory conditions are somewhat less than desirable, is unsatisfactory).

Ultimately, however, what How to Stop Time amounts to, despite its shortcomings in some attention to detail in time, scene setting and character shift, is a readable affair, well-paced, and not without an ability to provoke thought after the last page has been finished. In and of itself, extreme longevity is not so novel a concept, but Haig leaves us with considerations on what such fantastically long-lived experience might cause to manifest in someone either afflicted, enduring or blessed by what he terms as anageria.

Book Review: Stardust (Neil Gaiman)

A cursory review of Neil Gaiman’s body of work would readily highlight the author’s penchant for all things fantastical, for oddity and for fairy tale, or Faerie. There can be no doubting his connoisseurship and undoubted prior reading in such matters. It can, therefore, come as no surprise in anticipating what might transpire in the reading of a novel entitled Stardust, accompanied by cover notes to the tune of ‘Gaiman describes the indescribable: the eerie colours, ravishing scents and dangerous laughter of Faerie.’ We should expect a tale of some such fantastical unravelling. Unfortunately, this tale is a light affair.

Stardust (Headline Review, 2005) follows the adventures of Tristan Thorn, a young man who lives in the fictional town of Wall, somewhere in England, in the early Victorian period. Tristan is out one evening, having walked home his love interest, Victoria Forester, and the incidence of a falling star causes our hero to set off on a quest: that is to say, the recovery of the fallen star to give to Victoria in exchange for his ‘heart’s desire’. This being a Gaiman story, however, the town of Wall just so happens to exist on the boundary to the Faerie realm, and it is to and within the latter that Tristan must journey. There is a gap in the wall (from which the town owes its name), guarded at all times, on the other side of which, once every nine years, various creatures of the other realm gather in a meadow for a grand fair. There they offer all manner of weird and wonderful and magical wares.

There is much to pack into a synopsis of what follows: Tristan’s search for the fallen star is aided by his ability to locate things easily on the other side of Wall. He is, it transpires early on, born to one of the Faerie folk (the result of his mortal father having attended the fair some years before and, having been a lovelorn young man himself, falling for a violet-eyed young woman enslaved to an elderly saleswoman). We can assume that Tristan’s orienteering skills are evidence of his magical parentage, but we must also assume much else. Just as in magical realist terms, where the reader and characters are asked to accept their surroundings and its occurrences without question, in Gaiman’s fantasy we and Tristan must accept that what happens in Faerie is just what happens in Faerie.

Tristan encounters all manner of strange characters (or, who might pass as strange in the usuality of our own worlds): a hobbit-type creature, fairies who steal his clothing, obligatory witches or ‘witch-queens’, half-seen ghosts, black-clad sinister lords, a unicorn, the captain of a ship that sails in the sky. None of this surprises Tristan, of course. Nor does it surprise him that he can travel great distances ‘by candlelight’, or that the star he seeks turns out, in fact, to be a young woman (or, in the language of the fairy tale, a girl). The star (who Gaiman later names as Yvaine, ‘For I was an evening star’) breaks her leg on landing. The author adds a little extra humour to his writing, here and there, and (to highlight that this book is not, in fact, a children’s fairy tale) he writes that the star exclaims ‘Ow . . . [insert expletive here!] . . . Ow’, quietly, when she lands. It raises a wry and equally quiet smile.

Tristan’s adventure includes his return to Wall, with the star, to give her to his beloved, Victoria Forester. He binds the star to him with a silver chain (magically enhanced, of course) but she will not come willingly. Tristan chances upon a unicorn, who he saves from a bloody fight with a lion, and so our hero and his captive have their means of speedier travel. It is another point of puncturing the guise of the children’s fairy tale that takes place, later, when Gaiman has his unicorn murdered, bloodily.

Despite this, all the tropes of traditional fairy tales are here: the little cottage in the woods, the triumvirate of witches seeking youth and vigour, the dark overlords, woods that are alive, poisons and spells and enchantments broken, and so on. Gaiman works all that he appears to have read and to know into his text, albeit in his own idiosyncratic style. He knows too of legend, of course, and a reference to Wayland’s Smithy does not go unnoticed. There is, however, no immediately significant reasoning for using such literary forms of fairy tales, other than they are the staple diet of previous writers (and, if deeper levels are intended and known to the author, then the whole supersedes the minutiae: it is a whole predominately of lightness and humour, with a sprinkling of darkness, rather than a more nuanced directing towards examination of detail).

There are some moments of descriptive significance (Gaiman is fond of repeating the gold-green palette of the woods, for example, and a shrinking spell on Tristan is particularly well written), but there are, equally, moments where characters seem to be lost to themselves: that is to say, there is no gentle shift between incarnations of individuals (Tristan’s true mother, early on, and her later self, for example; his father’s early naivety and his later blandness). It cannot be expected that a work such as Stardust (as fair written as it is) go any significant way towards character depth, yet even a fairy tale, perhaps, ought really to have some of it because, as the author knows well enough, it is a story after all, and stories breathe.

Stardust is, ultimately, a quick and accessible read, but it lacks any great aftertaste: that is to say, there is a lingering curiosity about ‘otherness’, about fairy tales and Faerie, about what such tales and their stock imagery and interplays really meant, but the inquiry dissipates there. Gaiman’s writing here is perfectly readable, enjoyable and engrossing in some sweeps, but somehow lacking in something more (something that might, for example, set the imagination of an early Victorian inhabitant of the fictional town of Wall tumbling, over and over: just what might be, and how, through the gap, into and beyond the meadow, in the land of Faerie, where a star can fall and land, where it can transform?).