With the Students’ Association’s mental health and wellbeing awareness week approaching, it seems especially appropriate to discuss the latest work of bestselling author Matt Haig, How to Stop Time. After the publication of his 2015 memoir on depression, Reasons to Stay Alive, and the explosive success that ensued, Haig has become one of the nation’s pioneers for illuminating mental health through literature and this fictional novel is not an exception.
How to Stop Time neatly follows Haig’s own decree that “books are our maps”, as it explores the complexities of human emotion through the lost soul of Tom Hazard, a 400-year-old traveller. Haig dances between centuries and continents with his protagonist Hazard; from working as a lutist for Shakespeare to conversations with the Fitzgeralds in Paris, Haig clearly has a lot of fun with the flexibility of this multi-genre text.
Cursed with the condition of ‘anageria’, Haig’s protagonist ages 15 times slower than the average human and has learnt to change identity every eight years to avoid rousing suspicion. Set in modern-day London, the text sees Tom try to live a normal life as a history teacher, whilst constantly haunted by his past: the narrative flits between these temporalities.
Admittedly, the opening chapters are weighted with cliched philosophising of time, as if Haig is contriving a poignancy that, instead of nuanced, becomes somewhat nauseating. The cliches fortunately dissolve as the plot develops and Haig instead begins to play around with plot. Lost in his past identities, Tom is tormented by memories and loss, and Haig explores the dangers of isolation through a first-person flashback narrative structure, which details the imprisonment of the mind. It is the strains of these varied time frames which cause Tom’s mental strains, allowing Haig to return to a theme of mental suffering and the negative effect of its disregard.
There is certainly a strong sense of authorial intrusion throughout the novel, to the extent that Tom seems a direct embodiment of Haig. This occurs both through his indirect attitudes towards mental health at the novel’s conclusion but also his personal experiences in a life of seemingly endless suffering.
That Tom nearly attempts suicide mirrors Haig’s own pivotal experience, something that he focuses on in his memoirs. It is these similarities that make Tom a sympathetic, relatable and even humorous protagonist, despite his age. The novel’s plot, which extends time, gives issues of mental health an element of timelessness.
By reading Tom as a partial recreation of Haig and thus a form of self-reflection, it becomes easier to see why the characterisation is occasionally flawed. Particularly towards the beginning of the novel, Tom possesses a slightly pathetic air which, although potentially intended to signify the loss of his identity, does not have the ability to capture the sympathy of its reader. This initial absence of likeable personality, combined with Haig’s initial engagement with tired cliches, unfortunately hinders the novel’s opening: the text must be approached with perseverance.
It is too easy to compare Haig’s more accessible style with Niffeneger’s truly moving language in The Time Traveller’s Wife. The extreme variety of setting and time, and the entertainment they evoke, are the main points of interest in Haig’s text, as opposed to Niffeneger’s intense emotion evoked from the characters.
Matt Haig has proven his worth as a fictional writer and an ambassador for mental health awareness, and this novel conveniently merges the two in a fun, dynamic story of overcoming grief and one’s past towards a healthy and stable mental wellbeing.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
(Published by Canongate)
Image: Marco Verch via Flickr.