As the temporary custodians of relatively short lifespans, humanity has always looked longingly at the idea of immortality.
Everything from the fabled Fountain of Youth through to vampires and religious dogma (though in many cases you have to die to get this extension to your lifespan, rather complicating the process), and beyond, have touched upon the imagined lustre of life without end.
But as Matt Haig beautifully explores in How to Stop Time (spoiler – you can’t really) immortality, or at least quasi-immortality, is not all it’s cracked up to be.
This gracious and heartfelt novel, which moves with a poetic world-weariness almost until its faster-paced final act, is an exquisitely well-written rumination on time and whether we can truly ever escape its onrushing momentum.
In the case of the “Albatrosses” or “Albas”, rare genetically-gifted or cursed (depending on your perspective) people who age at a rate 15 times slower than their more rapidly mortal “Mayfly” aka “Mays” counterparts, it is not so much an escape as a lengthy stay in execution.
“It occurred to me that human beings didn’t live beyond a hundred because they simply weren’t up for it. Psychologically, I mean. You kind of ran out. There wasn’t enough self to keep going. You grew too bored of your own mind. Of the way life repeated itself. How, after a while, there wasn’t a smile or gesture that you hadn’t seen before. There wasn’t a change in the world order that didn’t echo other changes in the world order. And the news stopped being new. The very word ‘news’ became a joke. It was all just a cycle. A slowly rotating downward one.” (P. 32)
By dint of their far slower aging process, Albas, who are watched over by the dictatorial Albatross Society run by Hendrich, a 900 year-old wealthy man steeped in paranoia and mistrust of the “Mays”, are witness to the expansive nature of time, to its peaks and troughs, its patterns and tropes, and its capacity for extreme ennui, and increasingly, its rare delights.
The protagonist Tom Hazard, born in 1581 into French nobility before he and his Huguenot Protestant mother are forced to flee to the UK to escape persecution from the Catholic majority, is a man who knows well how delightful and yet enervating a wildly extended lifespan can be.
He has known both true love with a woman called Rose in the early 16th century and decade upon decade of unending decay of loneliness and loss, met and befriended the likes of Shakespeare, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Samuel Johnson, and yet found himself living in poverty and obscurity.
Through it all, he wonders if life, as long and winding as an Alba’s is, is worth the price; but like many of his long-living contemporaries who always attract attention as they stay youthful while those around them inexorably age, he remains on the path to near-eternal longevity, driven largely by the burning desire to find his long-lost daughter Marion, who shares his condition.
Tom’s is a precarious dance between futility and purpose, hope and despair, a sense that life is worth all the sacrifices as long as you truly live it.
But is he living it as fully as he could? Is Hendrich, who parcels out eight-year assignments to each known Alba with absolute, deadly control, killing any “Mays” who find out the Alba’s true condition, letting him and others like Agnes and Omai experience everything life has to offer?
It’s a question that permeates How to Stop Time, suffusing every piece of existential angst and its great conundrum of the worth or otherwise of romantic entanglements (or indeed any kind of relationship at all).
Falling in love is seen by many Albas as an unnecessary complication that leads only to heartache and loss; but Tom begins to wonder, after he meets fellow teacher Camille as the school in London where he is a history teacher, whether staying away from love doesn’t incur more pain that surrendering to it – and it takes what could be seen as a gimmicky conceit in less capable hands, and imbues it with richness and meaning.
For if there is one thing that Matt Haig does well it is articulate what it is like to be on the outside looking in, to peer through the windows of gilded opportunity and wonder if there is a place for you in the midst of all the glitter and chaos of normalcy.
“The past resides inside the present, repeating, hiccuping, reminding you of all the stuff that no longer is. It bleeds out from road signs and plaques on park benches and songs and surnames and faces and the covers of books. Sometimes just the sight of a tree or sunset can smack you with the power of every tree and sunset you have ever seen and there is no way to protect yourself. There is no possible way of living in a world without books or trees or sunsets. There just isn’t.” (P. 180)
As Haig describes Tom’s beautiful, worn, exhausting, sometime joyful, often ennui-plagued life with deft nuance and heart-tugging emotional resonance, you come to appreciate in a profoundly moving way how quasi-immortality – for the Albas all die, not immune from time’s ravages, just more favoured by them – may not be the cornucopia of delights we envisage.
But more than that, and this speaks to the deep insightfulness and thoughtful contemplation that Haig brings to his quite extraordinary but touchingly human tale, is the contemplation of what makes for a fulfilling life, regardless of how many years are allotted to you.
In the end, that is the central idea at play – not so much how long you live as what do you do with the time you have, and what constitutes living as opposed to simply existing?
How to Stop Time is richly, poetically meditative, anchored by Tom’s very human struggle to define his exceptionally long life in ways he can be at peace with; as he reaches the end of the story, which comes with some satisfying conclusions that don’t feel twee or outlandish but authentically happy and complete, you feel as if he has found that long elusive accommodation with life … until, of course, it twists out of his hands once again at some unspecified future point, and leads him on another merry dance.
But in that moment, that brief shining moment, he is happy.
Happy and content and then not; How to Stop Time nicely encapsulates that near-eternal struggle and asks whether any of us, Mays or Albas, can ever claim to have got the better of time, and muses whether the best we can hope for are fleeting moments of happiness and purpose on time’s canvas of contrary possibilities.