Just one of his multiple aliases, Tom Hazard has a rare condition called Anageria which means that for every fifteen years he lives, his body ages just one. To prevent the rest of mankind, or “mayflies”, from suspecting anything he joins the Albatross society, run by a man called Hendrich, which gives protection to its members by moving them to a new location every eight years and providing them with a new identity each time. In return Hendrich asks for special favours when he requires them.
The split narrative switches between Tom’s life in the present day working as a History teacher and flashbacks to his past, which Matt Haig decided to do “to make it feel like memory. Minds don’t work chronologically. I wanted it all to feel like Tom’s mind, and blur it all together.” It also allows Tom and the reader to experience a variety of fascinating periods and places, from Elizabethan London to 1920’s Paris. By blending fantasy and reality Matt Haig takes us on a fictional trip through history, which is not only highly entertaining for us to read but it was equally as enjoyable for him to write; “I had so much fun with this book. I love the challenge of trying to make the fantastical realistic… it’s not that hard when you realise living reality itself is already a kind of fantastic miracle.”
Along the way Tom encounters some famous faces, including Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who Matt chose to include because “they both defined an age” and he’d love to meet them in real life himself! Not once do you doubt the authenticity of the historical picture Matt paints, which despite his degree in History, he admits required “a lot of research as – because it was set in so many different eras – it was like writing 12 different novels at once”.
Just as Tom does for his pupils, Matt Haig brings History to life. Matt told us that he chose teaching as an occupation for Tom because he “thought it’d be fun to have a history teacher who himself IS history”. Matt’s mum was a teacher for forty-five years and he wanted “to take this character who has lived for centuries, who has realised there is no more important or wonderful life than that of a teacher.”
You’d think it would be a blessing to live for centuries and have so much time on your hands – you could see the world, learn multiple languages, master numerous skills etc. – but Tom feels suffocated by it. You inevitably lose everyone who matters to you so falling in love is the one rule set by the Albatross Society that shouldn’t be broken. Matt acknowledges that it’s both a blessing and a curse, and for him personally, “the blessing would be that it would cure my hypochondria, while the curse would be that life would begin to repeat and grief would deepen.”
Tom has seen the world change dramatically since 1581. It goes without saying that there have been advancements in everything from technology to medicine, but it’s exasperating for Tom to watch humanity repeatedly make the same mistakes. It’s a depressingly lonely existence, especially when people aren’t present anymore, as Tom observes, “they always have at least one foot in the great digital nowhere”.
Matt’s books often explore the important things in life from a removed perspective, which he puts down to the fact that he always relates to the outsider; “fiction is a brilliant tool for exploring this, both the writing and the reading of it. I think fiction is a place where we can all belong.” Tom is most definitely an outsider and someone we can all relate to. His pain is palpable and there’s a raw honesty to Matt’s words, powerfully touched by his own experience of mental health issues. His poignant, insightful commentary prompts us to consider what it is to be happy and live a fulfilled life. Rather than wish for more time on this planet, Tom’s story will make you want to live each day you do have to the fullest. Indeed the one thing Matt hopes people will take away from the book is “a sense of perspective. It is all too easy to get trapped in day-to-day concerns. I think fiction is a way to give us a broader mirror, a way of seeing the bigger picture, and maybe help us live a little freer.”
It sometimes feels like there is less time in the digital age, with every second supplying us with new information to consume, but Matt Haig encourages us to take a moment to pause. Captivating and compelling, How to Stop Time is about coming to terms with your past and understanding that life is precious but also a learning curve; even after four hundred years, Tom is still discovering things about himself and others.
So, if you want to know how to stop time, we recommend switching off your phone and reading a book, especially this one.