How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

What, you say? Not another time travel novel here at Book Barmy?

Maybe or maybe not – stick with me here, this one is different.

In How to Stop Time, Mr. Haig has conjured up a unique spin on the typical time travel novel — namely a tale centered around the ability (or curse) to live a very, very long time.

Tom Hazard, (full name Estienne Thomas Ambroise Christophe Hazard) was born in 1599 and suffers from a rare genetic condition that makes him age very slowly.  He has been alive for the last 400 or more years.  The book opens with this wonderful first line:

I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe.

Over the centuries, Tom has lived many lives and because of his longevity, many of those lives were filled with love, but also heartbreak and loss.

On the positive side Tom got to work at the Globe Theatre with William Shakespeare, rubbed elbows with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and sailed with Captain Cook, all while avoiding anyone who grows suspicious of his glacial aging process.

Tom is recruited into the Albatross Society which pledges to protect people with his disease.  The only stipulation is that he has to change lives every eight years and he is given this warning:

 “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”.

In an effort to make up for the no love rule, Tom is reassured:

“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.”

But all Tom wants is to live a normal life and find his long lost daughter who also suffers from the same genetic condition.  When the book opens, Tom has settled into teaching at a London high school, and of course he chooses to teach history, because:

It [history] isn’t something you need to bring alive, because it already is alive. Everything we say, do and see is only because of what has gone before.

He adopts a dog and finds himself attracted to the French teacher Camille, but he must resist because of the society rules.  Soon it is time to take on another persona, and move on to yet another life and another adventure.

That’s all the plot I’ll give away from this engrossing tale.

Mr. Haig transports the reader back and forth in history. But, he doesn’t beautify — instead he unveils the filthy, muddy, smelly reality of earlier times.  We see Shakespeare writing his beautiful works against the backdrop of crime, bigotry and disease.  Tom plays the lute in the marketplace right beside animal filth.  Everyone drinks ale, because the water might kill you.

For me the most interesting part of How to Stop Time, was the irrationality of the human experience. People throughout history have always hurt others, made stupid mistakes, been egocentric, and continue to do so — over and over and over again. And important note, we haven’t become wiser over time:

The lesson is that ignorance and superstition are things that can rise up, inside almost anyone, at any moment. And what starts as a doubt in a mind can swiftly become an act in the world.

Which brings one to ponder long after the last page.  How would you live — how would you act —  and mostly how would you feel —  knowing you could live almost forever?

How to Stop Time is handsomely written and filled with the bittersweet truth of the human experience — our capacity to endure pain, inflict hurt, but also our ability to love beyond any limits, even those of time.  All while carelessly bumbling through our ever-so-short lifespans.


A digital review copy was provided by Viking via Net Galley.  

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *