The past resides inside the present: the geek book review of Matt Haig’s “How to Stop Time”

How to Stop Time

Matt Haig

Canongate, 2018

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Geek Rating: Sun god worthy (4 out of 5 stars)

“To cling to who I was, right at the beginning when I was just a small boy with a long name who responded to time and grew older like everybody else. But there is never a way into the before. All you can do with the past is carry it around, feeling its weight slowly increase, praying it never crushes you completely.”

51yHUS41yNLWe came to know the author Matt Haig years ago when we read his book The Radleys. One day we tweeted a quote from his book and was thrilled when we learned that we got a follow back from him. Haig is different, unlike other “celebrities” with blue ticks on Twitter. You only have to read his latest Twitter feeds to know that he tweets his thoughts, and we almost always get a lesson or two from them. His new book, How to Stop Time, is like an extension of his Twitter feed, with a story that will take readers to the past, right into the present, and a peek in the future. In his lead character Tom Hazard, we could hear Haig speaking as they accompany us to a journey to find the secret of how to value time, and how to live life.

“I am old,” says Tom Hazard, the main character of the story. “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 …” Tom is not an immortal, or a vampire in the terms of us Millennials. Nope, Tom ages too but not just as quick as a “normal” person. In his world, there are “Albas”, like himself, and “Mayflies” like us.

The story opens with Tom’s conversation with a man named Hendrich, the leader of a society which protects people like him. Every 8 years, the members of the society leaves their life and starts a new one to a place where they will not be recognized. A necessity for Albas. Tom asked to return to the place where it all started for him – to London. It will open up different memories and will endanger his safety against the world or against the society itself.

On most books we read, we need several pages to acclimatize ourselves to its settings, and its characters, but How to Stop Time is one of those few special books that do not need any more introduction. From page one we already felt that we already know Tom, like meeting an old friend. We thought at first that How to Stop Time was a self-help book, much like Manuscripts Found in Accra or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. But it is not.

After finishing its pages, like any other book, we step back to see the whole canvas. The book’s plot is simple, it deals with the concept of time and thus looked back on the long history of Tom himself. Tom’s story is interesting in itself, from the death of his mother who was accused of being a witch because of his seeming agelessness, to working for Shakespeare himself, playing the lute during his plays, and for Captains Wallis and Cook, discovering the new world, to meeting other famous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and dancing with Josephine Baker. It was strange to have such two existing realities, and Haig, being an outsider, made Tom more real.

The chapters are written in alternate orders: first to Tom’s present, then his past. Some chapters are longer than the other chapters, just as we remember some memories more vividly than the others. We learned about how he discovered that he is “different”, and we meet his love, Rose as they lived in the Shakespearean London. All through this, Tom lives in search for their lost daughter, an Alba like himself, a search that will take us to his present: as a history teacher in a public school in London. “I need to tame the past,” Tom said. “That is what history is, the teaching and telling of it. It is a way to control and order it.”

The sorrow and sadness and loneliness could be felt in every word uttered by Tom as he relieves the past, “and the pain coincides with memories,” he said. Through Tom, the book also discusses the meaning of life, or rather on how to live a life, to exist on it. He asked some important questions like what you would do if you could live without doubt. “What battle would I fight?” Tom goes on. “Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?”

But the book, first and foremost, is about the concept of time. Tom once revealed his desire to stop time, “I sometimes want, in a happy moment, for a church bell never to ring again…but we are all at the mercy of time…” In the following pages we learned from Tom the different concepts of time, how to stop it or most importantly, how to cherish it as at the same time, we look back at our past. “(The past) is all the accumulation of time…the past reside inside the present.”

How to Stop Time somehow has an anti-climactic ending. The burning of Hendrich was a nod to the time when Tom refused to burn down his friend Omai’s house in Tahiti, but the whole setting oddly seemed to be lacking of something close to a heart-stopping scene fitting in such a story. Not so much as like those in action movies but more to properly close Tom’s story with Hendrich’s society. We were also surprised but a bit dismayed on the appearance of his daughter Marion. One moment Tom was walking below some sort of a waterfall and then next his daughter was pointing a gun at him. And what about the society? Did it end after the death of its leader? It was highly unlikely that such a powerful group would cease to exist just like that. Which points out to the flaw of the book for not giving more background and legitimacy to this group which is a large part of the story of Tom.

Immortality is not a new idea, there are countless books that deal with this subject, but while the rest of them claims a god-like knowledge, Tom, in some ways, apart from his prowess in playing the piano, are not like the rest of the immortals. This does not erodes the realness of Tom but by admitting that he is not a god or a hero but just a survivor, Haig gives us a unique character that we can relate to at some level.

You can highlight the quotes in this book, those which are worth a tweet, a lesson-worthy tweet. But we always feel as we read these quotes that there was something short in it, like it was awkward to tweet it for taking just a few words without the rest of the paragraphs will take it out of context.  In retrospect, How to Stop Time, is different from quotes-ridden books of Coelho or Ōe or Haddon. The book gives us these quotes- these lessons- but let the readers fill the rest of the words.

Haig’s mastery of history is amazing but How to Stop Time is not so much as history or the society or its plot, rather it’s strength lies on Tom’s journey and realizations about time and wanting to live despite his sorrow and loneliness, while hanging on to memories. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”

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