It does me little pleasure to write a negative review of a book, especially when it comes so highly acclaimed; its front cover contains proclamations of positivity from Stephen Fry, Graham Norton and Marian Keyes. But, besides some enjoyable writing here and there and fun moments, I couldn’t get into How to Stop Time. Sorry!
Matt Haig’s book is about a man who ages incredibly slowly. Born in 1581, Tom has seen the world transform absolutely – and, rightly, the story hones in on what this would inevitably do to a person. Dislocated from time, Tom is a wanderer searching for meaning in a life which actively conspires against it. Does meaning come from our relationships with others and the experiences we have? If so, how is that possible when all of your relationships are doomed to die (literally)? It’s an interesting line to pursue, but the writing too often drifts into repetitive melodrama and, besides his fantasy affliction (because of it, arguably) Tom is unabashedly ordinary. I feel this was intentional and I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision to avoid the cliches, but sometimes it makes for less engaging reading.
I have to wonder whether my immediate dislike of How to Stop Time says more about Matt Haig’s book or myself, because my attention piqued when Haig began to explore the full possibilities of a character who has lived since the Elizabethan era. Tom’s adventures as a member of Shakespeare’s company, meeting Captain Cook on a sea voyage, along with F Scott Fitzgerald at a bar in Paris, were all incredibly fun to read.
A cynical part of me would say it’s because I’m so desensitized to serious drama that the only stories which excite me are genre pieces and the explicitly, outlandishly fictional. Perhaps. But I just think it’s fundamentally extremely difficult to create a compelling story when the dramatic conflict lies within a character’s mind, and we are routinely reminded that the conflict is unwinnable: Tom is depressed because of his heartbreak going back centuries, but even the prospect of new romance (a plotline which itself feels unfortunately contrived) is not enough to remedy this until the very end, an ending which feels structurally flawed. And while the central mystery of Tom’s missing daughter is engaging, the payoff for that too feels very abrupt.
It is unfortunate because I think the more that mainstream storytelling documents and explores mental illness, the better, and I think that Matt Haig’s very public discussion of his own depression is really fantastic. I really wanted to like How to Stop Time more than I did. But, at the very least, it helped me to pass the time.
(I’ll see myself out.)