How to Stop Time by Matt Hair (Canongate, 2017)


I once told my doctor that I wanted to live to be a hundred years old. His reaction surprised me. “Why would you want to live to be that old? Almost everyone you've ever known and loved will be gone before you. Living to that age can be very painful,” he cautioned. I had never thought about that aspect of living for an entire century.

So imagine what it would be like to live for a thousand years, especially if you were compelled to keep the secret of your age hidden from the world? This is the premise of Matt Haig's extraordinary novel How to Stop Time.

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The protagonist, Tom Hazard was born in the late 16th century, but at 439 years of age, he barely looks forty---and his life expectancy is another 500 years. People with Tom's affliction age at a much slower rate than “mayflies,” or those born without Tom's condition. But living for a millennium can be tricky because when one tries to establish roots, but never seems to age; people become very suspicious of that individual. In fact, if it happened in the 16th century, one could be accused of witchcraft and suffer a miserable fate as a result of that accusation, as happened to Tom's mother.

Consider the challenges of falling in love with someone, as Hazard did with a young fruit seller in Tudor London. Despite the risks of marrying Rose, who would age naturally while Tom never seemed to age at all, he took the risk, craving the love and affection that a family would provide. Rose, even knowing Tom's plight, chose to marry him and together they have a child, Marion, who inherits Tom's malady. As neighbors begin to notice the growing disparity in the couple's ages, Tom fears for the safety of his wife and child, already having lost his mother to suspicious minds. He makes the impossible decision to leave his beloved wife and daughter in order to protect them.

From the day that Tom abandons his family, he embarks on a long, dark journey to find the meaning of his impossibly long existence, and ultimately becomes compelled to search the globe for his daughter. The book seesaws in narration from contemporary London to Shakespeare's era, to the exotic voyages to the South Pacific with Captain Cook, to the Jazz Age and Hazard's brief encounter with Scott and “Zee” Fitzgerald.

Throughout his uncanny longevity, Hazard learns that there are many others like him in the world. He is recruited into a unique society called “The Albatross Club.” Membership is restricted to others who have what a doctor in the 1890s termed “anageria.” The master of the Albatross Club is a mysterious man named Hendrich, who on occasion gives Tom tasks to do on behalf of the security of the members of the organization. Many of these tasks are unsavory, but Hendrich uses finding Marion as leverage to force Hazard into completing the jobs.

Of Hendrich Tom reveals, “For all his age and intelligence, Hendrich was fundamentally immature. He was a child. An incredibly ancient child. That was the depressing thing about knowing other albas. You realized that we weren't special. We weren't superheroes. We were just old. And that, in cases such as Hendrich, it didn't really matter how many years or decades or centuries had passed, because you were always living within the parameters of your personality. No expanse of time or place could change that. You could never escape yourself.” (p.12)

While the subject of time travel has been around for a long time (consider H.G. Wells The Time Machine, Stephen King's November 22, 1963, or even the delightful film classic Back to the Future), Haig has given us a great new spin on a familiar idea. How to Stop Time is compelling read with a sympathetic and fascinating hero. With so many years still ahead of Tom Hazard, I hope that author Matt Haig will jump forward a century or two for a sequel to this wonderful read.