#GrinchReview: “How to Stop Time” by Matt Haig

[Versione italiana!]

What is it about popular books that makes you feel bad if you don’t end up liking them? Probably just a truckload of disappointment. 

Love is where you find the meaning. Those seven years I was with her contained more than anything else. Do you understand? You can take all the years before and since and weigh them next to those, and they wouldn’t stand a chance. 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’s the whole thing.

Me, desperately trying not to fall asleep
in Bristol Airport

It was late October this year when I picked up Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time at a second-hand bookshop and returned home brimming with excitement that I was finally going to read the book, the one everyone was talking about. I only read gifted or borrowed books (either from a library or off family and friends) so it’s no surprise I don’t come across new releases very often. I had saved this book for a long night at my second home (shout-out to Bristol Airport for being #bae), anticipating that I would be so engrossed in the book time would fly by! (How ironic that I picked a book titled “How to Stop Time” for that!) Anyway, you can only imagine my disappointment when, a few pages in, I realised I’d have rather spent the whole night staring at the wall in front of me than reading this book.

I talked about my disappointment a lot on Instagram, but I also promised time and time again I would write down my thoughts and main critiques on here, so here’s a badly thought-out post where I finally put all my unsolicited opinions on paper.

Let’s start from the good bits: the core idea of the book – a man ageing 15x slower than the rest of us and his long and complicated life – is interesting, albeit not new. That being said, hardly any idea is new, so I was happy to give this novel a shot. And Haig does indeed give it a new twist, weaving the story around Tom’s struggle to come to terms with the passing of time. Some of Tom’s reflections in the book (see the one quoted above, although that snippet is by Omai) are actually brilliant and make you reflect on your own concept of time. Haig is ultimately very quotable (and, I suspect, very smug about it) and I dare anyone to read this book and not find at least one page they can relate to. 

One of the most frustrating things – which I also mentioned on Instagram – is that there are some truly brilliant pages in this novel. Maybe they’re not excellent or life changing, but they’re good enough. I especially enjoyed reading about Tom’s relationships with Rose and Camille and some thriller bits. I say it’s frustrating, because it shows that Haig can be a really good writer and has some very nice ideas. Can be, as in, mostly isn’t

So, in true Christmas spirit, here’s the naughty list!

Here I am. Look at me carrying out this menial task and being very pedantic about where exactly my body is located at this precise moment. How thrilling.

The first thing to note is that the style is mostly dull. There’s no waltzing around this point, 80% of the books is badly written (the remaining 20% of the book is Instagrammable quotes, and the contrast is quite striking at times). In general, Haig’s writing style is excessively descriptive, the reader is constantly being told things, instead of shown and there are way too many unnecessary, pedantic details that add absolutely nothing to the story. I’m not saying I’ve read better written fanfictions back in my days, but if I had found this book on AO3 I’d have closed the tab in .5 seconds.

Number 2 on the list of Most Annoying Bits of the Book is how excruciatingly annoying Tom, the protagonist, is. And no, you really can’t try and ignore it since he’s the first person narrator of the story. Again, this is incredibly frustrating, because you’d have thought a 800 year old man who has lived through most of recent history’s greatest events would have some insightful take on life, but… no. Tom is an 800 year old who looks like a boring middle aged man and acts in all effect like a boring middle aged man. Just with a tad more migraines than usual. 

Instead of some inspiring or illuminating revelations, Tom just forks out moralistic lecture after moralistic lecture with a hard-pitted fake-deep cherry on top. I personally found these lectures very trite and irritating, especially because the man just wouldn’t shut up. Every single event in the book is nothing but a chance to dish out some sort of high and mighty judgement about life (see the excerpt above where Tom unlocking his bike is an opportunity as good as any for yet another patronising rant about life. Wow. Charming.) Okay, maybe I’m being a tad too harsh, but if I had a penny for all the times I rolled my eyes at the page, I could now afford… Well, let’s say a lot of Christmas chocolate to make up for the disappointment. My feelings can be perfectly summarised by this Twitter exchange:

Even Tom’s “condition”, called “anageria”, is irritating. The main reason is that Haig did enough world-building (and the reader is also made to read through pages upon pages of fake scientific explanations of this medical condition), that you end up thinking about it; but it’s not well-thought out enough, so when you inevitably end up thinking about it, you quickly realise it doesn’t hold up. For example, how convenient is it, that this condition magically strikes at about 13 years of age, i.e.: when a human being is starting to be self-sufficient and can look after themselves. Surely, if this condition were always present, and you had a kid that was stuck being a few months old for the first 15 years of their lives, you would be slightly concerned and either a) kill them or b) seek medical assistance and expose the condition. But nopety-nope this condition just magically appears when it is most convenient and the kid can just leave and survive on their own. Is this ever explain in the book? Of course not! 

(It reminded me terribly of Renesme Cullen, who conveniently aged very quickly till 18 and then stopped. Almost as if the author needed her to be Bella and Edward’s daughter but also be of legal age to get with Jacob all in the span of a book. This is not a very flattering comparison.)

And the thing is, I wouldn’t even mind that much if it were magic. I wouldn’t need an explanation for it, I’d be more than happy to suspend disbelief and just accept that these people live longer lives, but I was very annoyed by the fact that Haig tried to squeeze in some pretence of scientific accuracy, but then didn’t bother to make it logical or consistent. 

See, the key word here is consistency. The book’s main fault is that it lacks consistency. Is it a thriller? Is it romance? Is it literary fiction? Usually, when I say it’s difficult to pigeonhole a novel into one single genre, I mean it as a compliment. In the case of How to Stop Time, it’s not. The struggle comes from the fact that this novel has a bit of everything all thrown in in a disorganised mess. It’s a big old stew of every possible genre without a clear sense of direction. The result is an an indefinite taste of blandness, dull style, trite reflections about life and way too many unnecessary details and scenes (yes Matt, we know you have a History degree, you don’t need to have a jolly wank on all the ridiculous and unnecessary details you remember from your Medieval History module. Really, just don’t).

To conclude, How to Stop Time was one of my most disappointing reads of 2018 for me (I’ll probably make a post dedicated to that next week, so stay tuned!) and I genuinely wish I could get back the time I used to read it – see what I did there?

A useful disclaimer: if you’ve read and liked this book, please don’t take it personally. Luckily, we’re all still entitled to our own opinions (for now)! If you have some constructive criticism based on my review (something I might’ve missed or didn’t understand correctly) feel free to comment below or message me on Instagram!

This is M signing out for now ✨

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