BOOK REVIEW: "How to Stop Time" Is Thoughtful but Thin [Preview]

Perhaps it's a case of hindsight informing an opinion after the fact, but as soon as I read that How to Stop Time had already been optioned for a movie (set to star Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock fame) before the novel hit shelves, it occurred to me that the pacing of Matt Haig's newest novel reminded me of a screenplay more than a novel. The sharp jumps back and forth through time--the current-day actions neatly cut through with relevant flashbacks that amplify their poignance--practically slot themselves into your brain as visual media. That's not a knock on How to Stop Time, but perhaps it does explain my lingering dissatisfaction with the thin mythos of the novel and the too-quick wrap-up at the end.
There are certainly delights to be found in How to Stop Time, despite its tendency to oversimplify. The story is intriguing even if it never quite fully rises to its potential. Our narrator and protagonist is Tom Hazard, a high school teacher in present-day London, whose secret is that he was actually born 439 years prior and ages extremely slowly--almost unnoticeably, and is resistant to illness and disease. At a certain point during his adolescence, people started to notice that Tom didn't age, which led to his mother being tried and drowned as a witch in rural England. He has spent nearly his entire life on the run, afraid to stay in any one place for too long, allowing him to work both as a musician for Shakespeare and play piano in a Paris bar during the Gilded Age, but robbing him of the opportunity to make a home.

Fortunately, at the turn of the 20th century, the Albatross Society--named for the belief that albatrosses live a long time--steps in, offering him a deal. If he works to recruit people like them--namely, people who have lived for centuries while barely aging--the Society, with its infinite resources, will help him choose whatever life he wants every eight years (eight years being a reasonable amount of time before people start getting suspicious). After all, scientists and organizations around the world with unknown motives would surely want to get their hands on Albatrosses to discover the secret of their survival, putting them in mortal danger if they were to reveal the truth--not to mention the more analog dangers of villagers thirsting to hunt witches, or doctors thinking they're witnessing madness.

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