“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.” So Tom Hazard, the narrator of Matt Haig’s exuberant new novel, How to Stop Time, tells us in the book’s opening lines.
In fact, Tom is 436 years old. The conceit of the novel is that Tom has a rare genetic disorder (anageria) that makes him age at so slow a rate that he appears to be ageless.
He was born in France on March 3, 1581, the son of a Huguenot nobleman who was killed by the Catholic insurgents. Tom (or Estienne Thomas Ambroise Christophe Hazard to give him his full birth name) and his mother flee to England and genteel poverty. When their English neighbours begin to notice Tom’s eternal youthfulness they do the only sensible thing for the times and drown his mother as a witch.
It isn’t until centuries later, in the Victorian era, that Tom learns that there are others like him and that there is a secret society set up to protect them from the modern form of witch-hunters — that is scientists who want to dissect people like Tom and discover the secret to human longevity.
“People like us die in only one of two ways,” Tom is told. “We either die in our sleep aged around nine hundred and fifty, or we die in an act of violence that destroys our heart or brain or causes a profound loss of blood. That is it. We have immunity from so much human pain.”
The long-lived call themselves Albatrosses (or “albs” for short) and the rest of us are Mayflies. The theoretically benevolent but paranoid-sounding Albatross Society helps albs by giving them a new identity every eight years (just when people start to notice their changeless appearance) and then geographically relocates them where no one will recognize them.
Hendrich, the creepy 900-and-something-year-old head of the society (he looks to be in his early eighties) has one rule: “Don’t fall in love.” Falling in love with a Mayfly can only cause trouble and heartbreak and make moving on hard.
Tom fell in love once, in Elizabethan England, and has a long lost (long lost as in five centuries) daughter, Marion, who is also an alb. Hendrich keeps Tom in line by dangling the hope of the society finding Marion and reuniting father and daughter.
The novel flashes backward and forward between Tom’s many past adventures and his present life in 2017, teaching history in a tough middle school in London’s East End, where he is dangerously close to falling in love with the school’s pretty French teacher.
The period pieces are fun to read but they are hampered by Haig wearing his research too heavily (they start to sound like Tom’s history lessons) and by his inability to capture the colloquial voices of the times. Tom gets to work for Shakespeare in London, sails the South Seas with Captain Cook and meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in Paris, but they all sound like everyone’s next door neighbour.
The book is well crafted and nicely paced and has a worthwhile lesson about a life not being measured by its length but by its quality. Yet, at the same time the novel’s inner mechanics feel a bit lazy. The exact workings of the society and its vast reach are never really explained, they simply exist, and the hurried ending that ties up centuries worth of loose ends is full of gaping plot holes.
Still, the book is compulsively readable despite these flaws. There are many enjoyably funny scenes and many poignant moments. How to Stop Time, we are told in the Acknowledgements, is set to be made into a movie produced by and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, so maybe the novel will have more than a mere Mayfly’s life.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig, Cannongate (UK) Viking (US) HarperCollins (Canada) 336pp.