How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen it all. As long as he keeps changing his identity he can keep one step ahead of his past – and stay alive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love…
Boy oh boy. Forget Dr Who. Forget Back to the Future. Forget Audrey Niffernegger’s brilliant story The Time Traveller’s Wife (a Richard and Judy Book Club pick, by the way, long before it became a movie that was, sadly, inferior to the original). Matt Haig’s terrific novel, How to Stop Time, will stop you in your tracks. It’s time travel – but not as we know it. Indeed, as described in this wonderful book, not as we’re supposed to know it.
Because our central character, Tom Hazard, has a secret – a dangerous secret. He looks around 40 years old, but he’s not. Oh no. Tom was born before the Spanish Armada set sail. He’s been around for almost five centuries. He’s seen it all, been there, done that. He played lute in William Shakespeare’s orchestra pit. Sailed with Captain Cook around the globe. Played jazz piano in Paris; rubbed shoulders with Scott Fitzgerald; now he’s a history teacher at a London comprehensive. How is this possible?
Because Tom – not his real name by the way, he changes it all the time – is an incredibly rare example of the human species. He has a genetic condition known as anageria (spoken with a soft ‘g’); a condition which, for reasons we discover, has never become wider public knowledge. People ‘suffering’ from anageria do not age like the rest of us. Our one year equals around fifteen of theirs. So they live for about a millennia.
Rather a long time to reflect on the meaning of life.
I absolutely loved this book. It is by turns romantic, bitter, brutal, funny, and painfully sad.
From the outset, we are forced to understand that anageria is as much a curse as a blessing. When 16th-century neighbours of Tom Hazard’s family begin to notice that he simply isn’t ageing, even after decades, his mother is tried as a witch and drowned in front of her son. He escapes the superstitious mob and spends the rest of his life on the run.
Many years later, he is contacted by the mysterious Albatross organisation; a secret society made up of people with anageria. They call themselves ‘albatrosses’ or ‘albies’ because the giant sea-birds are reputed to live for centuries; they refer to the rest of mankind as ‘mayflies’; dead after just a day.
There are harsh rules for ‘albies’. They must never, ever allow themselves to fall in love. That guarantees repeated heartbreak as they outlive their partners. Neither must they remain in an assumed identity for more than eight years; to do so arouses suspicion as they conspicuously fail to age alongside their contemporaries.
But in a sinister twist, established ‘albies’ – Tom among them – must persuade newly identified members of their select elect to join the club and follow its rules. If they refuse, they are liquidated. (Albies may have genetic longevity, but they are not immortal. They can be despatched by a bullet or a knife just like the rest of us.)
How to Stop Time is a major achievement and a wonderful suspension of disbelief. We’re both convinced you’ll love it, as we did.
Let’s just hope the inevitable Hollywood movie doesn’t screw it up.
Read an Extract from How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
I often think of what Hendrich said to me, over a century ago, in his New York apartment.
‘The first rule is that you don’t fall in love,’ he said. ‘There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love. No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this you will just about be okay.’
I stared through the curving smoke of his cigar, out over Central Park where trees lay uprooted from the hurricane.
‘I doubt I will ever love again,’ I said.
Hendrich smiled, like the devil he could be. ‘Good. You are, of course, allowed to love food and music and champagne and rare sunny afternoons in October. You can love the sight of waterfalls and the smell of old books, but the love of people is off limits. Do you hear me? Don’t attach yourself to people, and try to feel as little as you possibly can for those you do meet. Because otherwise you will slowly lose your mind . . .’
Life Among the Mayflies
I am old.
That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.
I am old – old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old.
To give you an idea: I was born well over four hundred years ago on the third of March 1581, in my parents’ room, on the third floor of a small French château that used to be my home. It was a warm day, apparently, for the time of year, and my mother had asked her nurse to open all the windows.
I thought of it as an illness for quite a while, but illness isn’t really the right word. Illness suggests sickness, and wasting away.
‘God smiled on you,’ my mother said. Though I think she might have added that – should He exist – the smile had been a frown ever since.
My mother died a very long time ago. I, on the other hand, did not.
You see, I have a condition.
I thought of it as an illness for quite a while, but illness isn’t really the right word. Illness suggests sickness, and wasting away. Better to say I have a condition. A rare one, but not unique. One that no one knows about until they have it.
It is not in any official medical journals. Nor does it go by an official name. The first respected doctor to give it one, back in the 1890s, called it ‘anageria’ with a soft ‘g’, but, for reasons that will become clear, that never became public knowledge.
The condition develops around puberty. What happens after that is, well, not much. Initially the ‘sufferer’ of the condition won’t notice they have it. After all, every day people wake up and see the same face they saw in the mirror yesterday. Day by day, week by week, even month by month, people don’t change in very perceptible ways.
But as time goes by, at birthdays or other annual markers, people begin to notice you aren’t getting any older.
The truth is, though, that the individual hasn’t stopped ageing. They age exactly the same way. Just much slower. The speed of ageing among those with anageria fluctuates a little, but generally it is a 1:15 ratio. Sometimes it is a year every thirteen or fourteen years but with me it is closer to fifteen.
So, we are not immortal. Our minds and bodies aren’t in stasis. It’s just that, according to the latest, ever-changing science, various aspects of our ageing process – the molecular degeneration, the cross-linking between cells in a tissue, the cellular and molecular mutations (including, most significantly, to the nuclear DNA) – happen on another timeframe.
So, don’t think of me as a sexy vampire, stuck for ever at peak virility.
My hair will go grey. I may go bald. Osteoarthritis and hearing loss are probable. My eyes are just as likely to suffer with age-related presbyopia. I will eventually lose muscle mass and mobility.
A quirk of anageria is that it does tend to give you a heightened immune system, protecting you from many (not all) viral and bacterial infections, but ultimately even this begins to fade. Not to bore you with the science, but it seems our bone marrow produces more hematopoietic stem cells – the ones that lead to white blood cells – during our peak years, though it is important to note that this doesn’t protect us from injury or malnutrition, and it doesn’t last.
So, don’t think of me as a sexy vampire, stuck for ever at peak virility. Though I have to say it can feel like you are stuck for ever when, according to your appearance, only a decade passes between the death of Napoleon and the first man on the moon.
One of the reasons people don’t know about us is that most people aren’t prepared to believe it.
Human beings, as a rule, simply don’t accept things that don’t fit their worldview. So you could say ‘I am four hundred and thirtynine years old’ easily enough, but the response would generally be ‘are you mad?’.
Another reason people don’t know about us is that we’re protected. By a kind of organisation. Anyone who does discover our secret, and believes it, tends to find their short lives are cut even shorter. So the danger isn’t just from ordinary humans.
It’s also from within.
Book Club Questions for How to Stop Time
1. Is Tom Hazard’s condition a blessing or a curse? Is a long life always a good life?
2. Matt Haig has said that this book was partly inspired by his own experiences of mental illness. In what way has this shaped the novel? What are the consequences for Tom of having a condition that is invisible to the outside world?
3. Tom is told explicitly he must not fall in love. What makes him defy this rule? How do Rose and Camille inspire him to change?
4. How would you describe this book to a friend? Would you say this was a historical novel, science fiction, literary fiction or something else?