Book club’s July read was How to Stop Time by Matt Haigh. It’s a novel that spans time, place and genre but did we like it?
Let’s find out.
What’s it all about?
Here’s the blurb from the publisher:
Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life.
Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. Here he can teach the kids about wars and witch hunts as if he’d never witnessed them first-hand. He can try to tame the past that is fast catching up with him. The only thing Tom must not do is fall in love.
What’s good about it?
Ah, everything. The length of our discussion about a book is usually a marker of the quality of the novel we’ve read; this one lasted ages and included a number of caffeine refills.
Firstly, the plot of this book is fantastic. I was worried at first that it would become over complex and difficult to follow (as other books in this vein have been) but Haig handled it superbly. Nothing is over-worked, there is just enough detail to transport you into the specific time frames of each chapter and the transitions between time and place are elegantly well-oiled. Again, I’ve read other books that treat movement between worlds, places or time with clunky announcements that jarred my reading and distracted my attention from the plot. How to Stop Time avoids that completely.
Haig’s writing is pretty special. Sticking with place for a moment, he is able to deftly capture the essence of a period of time perfectly. Each chapter takes place in a different location, decade (sometimes century) and, even, country but Haig wastes no words on lengthy location descriptions; he’s a master of show don’t tell and the quality of his writing positions each chapter in its designated destination within merely a few sentences.
How to Stop Time is thematically rich. We discussed the variety of issues it provokes at length, unpeeling the onioned prose to reveal more and more insightful commentary at each level. It’s a love story, a thriller, has some sci-fi or supernatural elements, and is also an allegory for modernity, as well as a contemplation on what makes us human. We were each moved by different parts of the book as its complex wealth of observations resonated uniquely for all of us.
The characters are well-rounded and believable, and Haig clearly enjoyed placing them in some of his favourite literary scenes of past centuries. The book is simultaneously profound and playful; a beautiful narrative from an author who has something to say but relishes the whimsy afforded to an author of fiction.
What’s not so good about it?
We really had very little criticism of the book. There were some scenes we thought could have been shorter, in order to maintain pace in the middle of the book, but that didn’t distract from an overwhelmingly positive response to this book.
How to Stop Time is a wonderfully creative and beautifully written novel that everyone should read.