We own a tortoise called Rocket but have no idea how old he is. He was inherited last summer from my elderly aunt; she acquired him when her son (now pushing sixty) was a teenager – so Rocket is probably close to fifty himself. When we took him to the vet – who also couldn’t help us, age-wise – he told us that Rocket could live to anywhere between 150 and 200 years old. Having a pet that could potentially outlive your own children is a strange, sobering idea.
I thought about Rocket a lot whilst reading Matt Haig’s charming How to Stop Time, a book I read over one weekend at a very speedy, un-tortoise-like pace. The novel is the story of Tom Hazard, a man with a rare condition which means that he ages around 15 times more slowly than the average human being. Born in late 16th century France, by the time he reaches the 2000s Tom appears to be in his early 40s, but is in fact over 400 years old. Not surprisingly, longevity brings its own peculiar challenges, perhaps the keenest of which is Tom having to leave behind to history the people he cares most about.
In early 17th century London, Tom meets and falls in love with a young woman. For a while, he is happy; whilst busking Tom happens to come to the attention of a certain dramatist and theatre-owner, who offers him a job at his Globe Theatre. The way that Haig drops famous people into his narrative is very deftly done; it feels very natural, and my over-riding emotion whilst reading about Tom’s relationship with Shakespeare – and a cosy conversation they share in a Southwark tavern – was one of jealousy.
Maybe that’s because I’m an English teacher. In the book Tom decides to start teaching – history, in his case – ‘aged’ 41, which is how old I was when I did the same. Matt Haig has some very funny – and very accurate – things to say about teaching, and in his early lessons Tom Hazard is as hopelessly naive as I remember being. ‘This is the life I have chosen above all others,‘ Tom observes standing in front of Year 8. ‘The life of a man standing in a room of twelve-year-olds ignoring him.‘ I feel your pain, Tom. And even more so later in the book, when I found myself groaning with recognition:
For decades and decades and decades I have bemoaned people who say they feel old, but I now realise it is perfectly possible for anyone to feel old. All they need to do is become a teacher.
How to Stop Time is a book with a very real emotional punch, and is all the better for it. Despite his advanced age, during the novel we see Tom grow emotionally as an individual, coming to terms with his condition and growing more human as a result.Whilst I thought elements of the ending were a little contrived – I’m still puzzled by the motivations of one particular character – nevertheless the novel is very well structured. If like me you haven’t read anything by Matt Haig, How to Stop Time is a great place to start.