Tuesday, March 13, 2018

How To Stop Time

How To Stop Time. Matt Haig. 2018. 336 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: I am old. That is the main thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong. I am old –old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old. To give you an idea: I was born well over four hundred years ago on the third of March 1581, in my parents’ room, on the third floor of a small French château that used to be my home.

Premise/plot: Tom Hazard has had to live with regrets for a long time--a very long time. His biggest regret is leaving his daughter, Marion, behind all those centuries ago. At the time, he didn't know she'd inherited his gift, his curse. He left for her good--their good. His wife, Rose, and his daughter are in danger so long as he's near. Tainted by his "witchcraft" and "sorcery" by never aging. He doesn't want their fate to be like that of his mother.

The narrative is ever-shifting in time. In the present, Tom is a teacher, a history teacher, in London. He's falling for another teacher, Camille, who teaches French. He hates being part of the Albatross Society, but he fears the only way he'll ever find his daughter is with their help. These sections of the book provide some thriller action. Most of the book, however, is flashes of his past.

My thoughts: I enjoyed How To Stop Time. It was an odd book. A fast-slow book. Fast in that it provides action, suspense, and mystery. There is a showdown coming. Readers can feel it coming closer and closer. But also it is a slow novel in that it philosophizes a good deal. Much of the book is spent inside Tom's mind. And it's a reflective, inspective novel.

It would be interesting to see this as a film; interesting to see how this strange balance could come across.

What I enjoyed most was the writing:
  • History isn’t something you need to bring to life. History already is alive. We are history. History isn’t politicians or kings and queens. History is everyone. It is everything. 
  • Forever, Emily Dickinson said, is composed of nows. But how do you inhabit the now you are in? How do you stop the ghosts of all the other nows from getting in? How, in short, do you live?  
  • All we can ever be is faithful to our memories of reality, rather than the reality itself, which is something closely related but never precisely the same thing. 
  • That, I suppose, is a price we pay for love: the absorbing of another’s pain as if our own.  
  • I have long convinced myself that the piano is like a drug, seductive and strong, and it can mess you up, it can awaken dead emotions, it can drown you in your lost selves. It is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. 
  • I realise there is a reason I am doing this. Why I want to become a history teacher. I need to tame the past. That is what history is, the teaching and telling of it. It is a way to control it and order it. To turn it into a pet. But history you have lived is different to history you read in a book or on a screen. And some things in the past can’t be tamed.  
  • The key to happiness wasn’t being yourself, because what did that even mean? Everyone had many selves. No. The key to happiness is finding the lie that suits you best. 
  • All you can do with the past is carry it around, feeling its weight slowly increase, praying it never crushes you completely.
  • Change is just what life is. It is the only constant I know.  
  • Truth is a straight line you sometimes need to curve, you should know that by now. 
  • Music simply uncovers what is there, makes you feel emotions that you didn’t necessarily know you had inside you, and runs around waking them all up. A rebirth of sorts.  
  • People are only ever half present where they are these days. They always have at least one foot in the great digital nowhere.
  • You are not the only one with sorrows in this world. Don’t hoard them like they are precious. There is always plenty of them to go around.
  • To be good at writing is to be good at pulling out your own hair. What use is a talent that pains you? It is a gift that smells to heaven and it smells of fox shit. You should rather be a whore in the Cardinal’s Hat than be a writer. My quill is my curse.
  • It is strange how close the past is, even when you imagine it to be so far away. Strange how it can just jump out of a sentence and hit you. Strange how every object or word can house a ghost.  
  • The past is not one separate place. It is many, many places, and they are always ready to rise into the present. One minute it is the 1590s, the next it is the 1920s. And it is all related. It is all the accumulation of time. It builds up and builds up and can catch you violently off guard at any moment. 
  • There is no possible way of living in a world without books or trees or sunsets. There just isn’t.  
  • Love at first sight might or might not be a thing, but love in a single moment is. Maybe that is what it takes to love someone. Finding a happy mystery you would like to unravel for ever. We sit in silence for a while, like a couple, watching Abraham gallop around with a Springer spaniel. And I am enjoying the happy weight of her head on my shoulder, for two minutes or so. 
  • Life has a strange rhythm. It takes a while to fully be aware of this. Decades. Centuries, even. It’s not a simple rhythm. But the rhythm is there. The tempo shifts and fluctuates; there are structures within structures, patterns within patterns. It’s baffling. Like when you first hear John Coltrane on the saxophone. But if you stick with it, the elements of familiarity become clear. The current rhythm is speeding up. I am approaching a crescendo. Everything is happening all at once. That is one of the patterns: when nothing is happening, nothing continues to happen, but after a while the lull becomes too much and the drums need to kick in.
  • There comes a time when the only way to start living is to tell the truth. To be who you really are, even if it is dangerous.
  • That’s the thing with time, isn’t it? It’s not all the same. Some days –some years –some decades –are empty. There is nothing to them. It’s just flat water. And then you come across a year, or even a day, or an afternoon. And it is everything. It is the whole thing.’ 
  • The time ahead of you is like the land beyond the ice. You can guess what it could be like but you can never know. All you know is the moment you are in.  
  • To teach feels like you are a guardian of time itself, protecting the future happiness of the world via the minds that are yet to shape it. It isn’t playing the lute for Shakespeare, or the piano at Ciro’s, but it’s something as good. And goodness has its own kind of harmony.

© 2018 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Unknown said...

I loved this post, this was really well written!!And I now want to read this book!!

Joy Weese Moll said...

This sounds really good -- addiing it to my TBR.