Journey in time and understanding

British author and journalist Matt Haig. Photo: Clive Doyle
British author and journalist Matt Haig. Photo: Clive Doyle

Matt Haig's latest novel is a literary romp through time, writes Helen Speirs.

Matt Haig
Canongate/Allen & Unwin


Stories about time travel are endlessly fascinating. The theme speaks to our desire to explore, understand and push the confines of reality.

Matt Haig's latest novel is a variation on this theme. His central protagonist, Tom Hazard, doesn't travel through time, rather he lives through it. To most people Tom looks about 40, but a rare condition whereby he ages incredibly slowly means he has been alive for some 400 years.

His condition is explained at the start of the novel, which is prefaced with a warning from the co-afflicted Hendrich, Tom's "guide'' through the centuries: "The first rule is that you don't fall in love ...''

The scene is set for the rules to be broken, and it is not long before it is revealed that not only has Tom fallen in love in the past (as a young street performer in England at the turn of the 17th century), he is danger of doing so again (as a modern-day high-school teacher in London's Tower Hamlets).

The book flits back and forward over the past four centuries, from France in 1581 where the aristocratic hero is born as Estienne, to England where most of the action occurs in different time periods, but also to the United States, Tahiti, Australia and elsewhere.

Tom and other "albas'' (named after the long-lived albatross) must move on regularly lest their condition be discovered and they become the prey of scientists, medical practitioners and witch-hunters or endanger those close to them.

It is a lonely existence, understood largely only by others in the "Albatross Society'', founded by the mysterious and afore-mentioned Hendrich, supposedly for their protection, but with a sinister aspect.

English writer Haig's work is a joy to read: deceptively simple, yet packed with insight and emotion. He is also a children's author, and his most recent adult book was a candid and moving memoir of his experience of depression, titled Reasons to Stay Alive.

I can see in this book much of the same thinking and feeling. Although a playful look at longevity and time, at its heart this is a book about love and hope, fear and despair, grief and the loneliness of existence ("And she died and I lived and a hole opened up, dark and bottomless, and I fell down and kept falling for centuries.'').

Haig shows time is not linear ("The past is never gone it just hides'' and "It is strange how close the past is ... it can just jump out of a sentence and hit you ... every object or word can house a ghost''). Tom watches the same world events and attitudes ("of ignorance and superstition'') re-emerge. He increasingly deals with excruciating headaches, a memory pain ("a kind of altitude sickness, but of time, not height'') which causes him and the reader to revisit the traumatic events of his past and recall the terrible fates of those he has loved.

Haig imbues his hero with a sense of humour, though. There are lots of smiles to be had from the wry comments such as his description of teaching: "I have only been alive for four hundred and thirty-nine years, which is of course nowhere near long enough to understand the minimal facial expressions of the average teenage boy.''

The book is a literary and cultural treasure trove, and a journey through history. We meet Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Captain James Cook, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charlie Chaplain, visit Canterbury, the Globe Theatre (old and new), learn of the near-deafening artillery fire of the Spanish Civil War, about the Fire of London and the ravages of the Plague.

Yet amid the epic scale, the novel is also an intimate story of one man's doubt and pain. Melancholy pervades the book, but there is hope too, for it turns out there are reasons for Tom to stay alive - several of them. Will he find the missing links to his past in time? Will he thwart those set against him? Will he find love again? And, significantly, will he find himself?

A riveting and beautiful read.

Helen Speirs is former ODT books editor.

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