Print Edition - 2018-09-22  |  On Saturday

Time and again, love

  • Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time stands out due to its sheer imagination and a willingness to experiment
- Richa Bhattarai

Sep 22, 2018-

There are books we like because with their dazzling beauty, they make us say ‘wow!’. Others, far fewer in number, weave in an element of surprise or novelty so thought-provoking, we can just whisper a soft ‘Oh!’ Matt Haig’s twelfth novel ‘How to Stop Time’ is one of the latter.

In Haig’s novel, his 439-year-old protagonist Tom Hazard is sad, lonely and—in his own words—very, very old. He suffers from anageria, a genetic disorder causing him to age at a sluggish rate that astounds and terrifies ordinary mortals around him. Growing up in unforgiving 16th century England, his family pays, again and again, the dues for his bizarre appearance. Once, his darling daughter asks him, “Are you Satan, father?”

After losing his mother, wife and daughter to his strange affliction, Hazard tries to flee from his own self, racing across countries, centuries, and fascinating experiences. While death seems preferable to him than his meaningless life, the tiny hope of meeting his daughter someday makes him plod painfully on.

When we meet him at the beginning of the novel, Tom is back in his once-beloved London. He wants to lie low, teach history, find normalcy. But a timeless curse follows him everywhere he goes, forbidding him to get too comfortable, and most importantly, to fall in love. The all-powerful group of albatrosses he belongs to has strict rules: changing locations every few years, having little to do with mayfly humans, and enlisting others like him to the group. Tom has other ideas, though: he wants to reconnect with his hometown, starts getting attracted to a mortal colleague, and is wary of inciting others to tread his path.

Always, his existence is linked to that magic element of time. Eerily, the headteacher of his school reminds him of that, the very first week of his new life.

“Time,” she says, “is a strange thing, isn’t it?”

Tom agrees. It is indeed a strange thing, time. Some would call it a natural phenomenon, others a human-made concept. But whether we think it is in our grasp or a free-flowing object, we have always been obsessed with it. Right from our folk tales and myths, we are cautioned against tampering with time, of wishing for more than our share, or trying to cheat death. Humans wanting to be invincible, to conquer death, old age and time with elixirs, potions, peaches, apples, magic stones and the Holy Grail abound in myths. Yet all of them, at the end, must succumb to the whims of time. The folk tale of a woodcutter entrapping death, leading to a chaotic world where everyone grows old but never dies, establishes the significance of the life cycle. Birth, old age, disease and death, Buddha tells us, are unavoidable.

In this world preoccupied with appearing just a year younger, living just a day more and cheating death just by a second, the concept of semi-immortality, like Tom’s, would seem like a blessing. In fact, it has a strange parallel to the Harry Potter series, where the antagonist—also called Tom—craves immortality with a frightening dedication. Throughout the seven volumes, he attempts vile deeds and monstrosities for his longevity. Yet, at the end, the force of love destroys him.

Just like this novel, where love transcends everyone and everything, even time. Though impractical and flawed, it is a beautiful concept to hinge a novel on, and will appeal to lovers of all things love. However, the execution of this love, supposed to be all-consuming, sometimes appears merely lukewarm and brittle. Often, writers (like lovers) are more in love with the idea of love as a theory than as action, and this might be one of the biggest irritants of the novel.

As he struggles with holding on to this eternal love while slowly adapting to a new one, Tom takes us on a history and culture walk around the world—and this is where it starts to get tricky. The rhythm and flavour of the beginning of the modern era and its tussle with the old, is captured well in parts of the novel. When Tom moves to Bankside in London, he discovers that it was an area of freedom. “And the first thing I discovered about freedom was that it smelled of shit,” he says. “There were five tanneries all in close proximity, just after you crossed the bridge. And the reason they stand, I would later learn, was because tanners steeped the leather in faeces.”

Playing the lute for Shakespeare in such changing times, and sharing a toast with Fitzgerald a little later might be captivating enough, but when he starts pairing up with Captain Cook and getting noticed by Charlie Chaplin, it starts getting a tad implausible and repetitive. And if the back story of 400 years is squashed a bit uncomfortably in 200-odd pages, the denouement is even more hurried and unsatisfactory. It is as if Haig were in a rush to finish the book. Discerning readers will also detect a tendency of the novel to ingratiate itself by using tested characters, dialogues and themes that are quick fixes, likely to appeal immediately to the public, a little like fast food. The young Marion, a wonderfully precocious girl, can also seem like a caricature of a modern ‘gifted child’ at times.

Despite these grievances, this work of fiction stands out due to its sheer imagination and a willingness to experiment just a bit more than the next book. At times it can become downright thrilling and gripping and pure, taking on the garb of a man who has trudged on stolidly through uninspiring years with the thought of a loved one leading him along. The narration is immediately likeable, it pulls you in like a friend. It also forces us to think of how quick we are to judge and demarcate people, how anyone even slightly different from the majority is ostracized in innumerable blatant and subtle ways. The non-linear storyline is smooth and well-transitioned.

Most of all, the way Haig has managed to play with the concept of time, and use it as effectively as many well-loved works fixated on the changes brought about by the calendar—The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Kindred come to mind—it will make readers reflect on life, death and mortality. It is worth a read for introducing a freshness to the speculative genre.


Author: Matt Haig

Publisher: Canongate

Price: Rs 800

Pages: 325

Published: 22-09-2018 07:34

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