Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. Here he can teach the kids about wars and witch hunts as if he’d never witnessed them first-hand. He can try and tame the past that is fast catching up with him.
The only thing Tom mustn’t do is fall in love.
How to Stop Time is a wild and bittersweet story about losing and finding yourself, about the certainty of change and about the lifetimes it can take to really learn how to live.
I believe books come along at just the right time. I bought How to Stop Time from the gorgeous Blackwell’s Books in Oxford and read it as I journeyed around the UK on my very first trip overseas. I think most Australians can relate to the overwhelming history which hits you in even the most mundane settings across the Britain and Europe. It was only as I was wandering the streets of Oxford, Edinburgh, London and York that I realised Australia’s colonised past really is but a drop in the ocean of history. This awe and wonder at my own tiny space in the world was the perfect compliment to How to Stop Time’s poignant exploration of the human condition.
Tom is hundreds of years old, yet appears to be in his early 40s. He’s witnessed and lived through some of the biggest moments in human history, has known some of the most iconic people. Sounds amazing, right? All the time in the world to explore, read, learn languages, build wealth, master skills. But Tom’s near-immortality seems more of a curse. He’s been alive for centuries and watched his loved ones die. Those loves ones though, are also few and far between because one of the most important rules Tom must follow to stay safe is to not fall in love. Is this price worth the ability to live for hundreds of years?
I’m a slow reader, but I lingered even longer over the pages of How to Stop Time. I can’t quite put my finger on why. It may have been the gorgeous writing; it really was something I wanted to savour. It may also have been the melancholy feeling that accompanied Tom’s stories. However, part of the reason I found it so easy to take my time with this book was because the plot, while fascinating, was not really a page-turner. I wouldn’t say this is a criticism though, just an observation. After all, it takes all types of books to make a library and as a history nerd, I really enjoyed it.
What I loved about How to Stop Time was the way it made me reflect on our place in the world as humans. As I mentioned at the start of this review, travelling to Britain was such an eye-opening experience. I’ve grown up in a place which was only settled by white Australians in the late 1800s. As I soon realised, that’s practically yesterday in Britain. I was constantly in awe of the buildings, the amazing stories and the items on display in museums. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London in particular was just magical. How to Stop Time just seemed to be the perfect companion at this time in my life, highlighting how small we are in the grand scheme of the world. I loved the exploration of Tom’s relationships with other people and his own battle between choosing safety of protecting his world or choosing love.
The movie rights for How to Stop Time were sold to Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company before the book was even released and I’m so excited to see how this gorgeous, atmospheric novel translates to screen. I’ll also be tracking down Haig’s other fiction works now, because I loved his style. Subtle and poignant, How to Stop Time explores our place in the world, and in history.