So that’s the end of the Summer Without Men 2018. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself: I’ve read 27 books over the two months of the challenge, which is pretty respectable; even if I didn’t quite manage to embrace the broad spectrum of subjects that I’d hoped. But those other books are still there, waiting, and will be read in due course. Having a reason to focus on the female authors in my library made me appreciate their scope and range and wit so much more, and I think I might make this an annual thing. There’s no danger of running out of books: at my present count, I have 755 books by women on my to-read list (across all genres, both digital and hard-copy – yes, that figure rather scared me as well), so I could actually do Three Years Without Men and still have books to spare. But I can’t deny I’m looking forward to letting the men in again – as long as they behave themselves. I’ve had books by Ben Kane and Peter Ackroyd and Robert Harris and all sorts of people just sitting there, tempting me for the last two months, so we might have a bit of a rush on Romans and Vikings and general muscly-warlike-stuff until the novelty wears off again. But we’re easing ourselves in gently for the first book, with a typically sentimental, introspective novel by Matt Haig.
This was the second novel chosen by my book club, following The Immortalists. Having read The Humans, The Radleys and Reasons to Stay Alive (I haven’t reviewed the last), I’d had more experience of Haig than the others and so knew vaguely what to expect: the use of speculative fiction to explore what it means to be human. But I was interested to hear the opinions of my friends, who don’t know Haig so well, and so this post combines my own thoughts with some of the discussion points that came up during our meeting. Our hero is Tom Hazard, mild-mannered London history teacher, who has one major advantage over others in his field: he’s actually seen most of what he teaches. For Tom was born in 1581 and has spent almost five centuries coming to terms with the dark and light in human nature, trying to understand what makes a good life. It’s a promising concept, but there are a couple of problems with the way it’s used: first, it’s not an original concept; and secondly, we found ourselves wondering whether Tom is really interesting enough as a character to warrant five centuries of our attention.
It might seem a bit cruel to condemn Tom for not being particularly interesting, but the brute fact remains that most of us aren’t interesting and our daily lives would be pretty dull to read about, let alone for a half a millennium. Tom is abnormal in his unnaturally long lifespan, but he seems to be fundamentally very normal in other ways: rather than use his genetic gift to see the world, savour it, and taste all the colours of life, he wants the simple things: a family; love; a sense of community. The tension at the heart of Haig’s book is that Tom can’t have any of these things, because his very nature forbids it. While still a child, he learns that he must leave those he loves in order to protect them. His one true love, whom he meets in 1599, meets an untimely end, leaving Tom drifting through the world without hope or anchor, unable to leave the memory of Rose behind. His one hope is that he can track down their daughter Marion who, rumour says, shares his long life. But where in the world can he find a young woman who, like him, must have become skilled in hiding who she truly is?
The plus points about Haig’s concept is that he has thought carefully about how such an existence might come about. There’s nothing supernatural about Tom’s long life. He simply has a genetic, medical condition, ‘anageria’, which Haig conceives as the opposite of progeria. Those with progeria age very quickly; those with anageria, who call themselves ‘albas’, age extremely slowly. Unfortunately the world isn’t yet ready to accept these people scattered in its midst, and this is even less the case in Tom’s childhood. Someone who doesn’t seem to age can all too easily be accused of witchcraft in Elizabethan England, or locked up in a medical research facility in the 21st. And so the albas form their own secret society, governed by the charismatic and tyrannical Hendrich, which offers support and direction to its members. The rules are simple. Do what Hendrich tells you; move from place to place every eight years, so that your friends and neighbours don’t get suspicious; don’t love. Hendrich himself seems to thrive on this existence; but Tom soon comes to realises that he can’t bear moving through life like a ghost. He wants to love – he needs to love – but will he ever find someone to match Rose?
So what are the drawbacks? As I’ve said, Tom spends a large proportion of his five hundred years beweeping his outcast fate rather than taking advantage of it. Certainly, he’s suffered some terrible bereavements, but he doesn’t really do enough to keep the pace of the book going. He flounders around, being directed by other people, and he doesn’t really grip as a protagonist. Secondly, this is a classic example of the ‘Good Morning Dr Johnson’ School of Historical Fiction. I’ve mentioned this before: it’s the principle by which a fictional character in a historical time period meets the most famous and most significant people in that period, just so the author can nudge the reader and whisper, “Look! Celeb cameo!” This novel lays it on in spades. In 1599, young Tom is taken on by none other than William Shakespeare; in the 18th century, he manages to blag a space on Captain Cook’s ship and becomes best mates with Omai (who is also, it turns out, an alba and who introduces Tom to the art of surfing and, in the modern day, becomes a YouTube surfer celebrity); in the 20th century he bumps into F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda in a scene that has absolutely no wider point and might have been lifted straight from Midnight in Paris.
And this all feels like history-by-numbers. Haig doesn’t try to take us deep into the changing historical periods through which Tom has lived. Tom himself doesn’t develop. He’s essentially a modern man dumped into Elizabethan England, among primitive ideas and suspicions. History is evoked by token appearances of famous people rather than an effort to actually show us what it might have been like – ironically, the quality which is supposed to make Tom such an inspiring teacher.
I wondered whether the entire novel is actually an allegory about mental illness. Haig has written candidly and bravely about his own struggle with depression in Reasons to Stay Alive and something about Tom’s experiences resonated with me in this way. To live an unnaturally drawn-out life, to be unable to build strong relationships with those you love, to lose them and find no comfort, to feel estranged from the world around you, to endure a life without meaning… all of these could be interpreted as aspects of depression, and it’s significant that love and understanding offers Tom a way out. If we choose to see the book in this way, then its simplicity and lack of historical depth can be explained away: not a shortcoming but a deliberate choice to emphasise the novel’s allegorical quality. I don’t know if this is true; it just struck me as an alternative reading.
The elephant in the corner of the room is a book that I own but haven’t yet read: John Boyne’s The Thief of Time. This was published before How To Stop Time and is based on a very similar premise: an immortal or near-immortal hero, who moves among short-lived ordinary humans. Not having read Boyne, I don’t know what his explanation is for this immortality, nor do I know what use his protagonist makes of it, but from the blurb on the back cover he seems to plunge into life with both hands outstretched, rather than sitting in a corner feeling melancholic, as Tom seems to do for much of the time. I’ll get round to Boyne’s novel soon – it’ll be especially interesting with How To Stop Time fresh in my mind – but in the meantime I’d love to hear from anyone who’s read both, to see how you think they compare and which deals with the subject more successfully.
Not my favourite of Haig’s novels so far, I admit, because I felt there were a lot of missed opportunities, plot holes, an unconvincing deus ex machina ending, and mawkishness was prized over depth; but I’ll probably seek out the rest of his books in due course, if only to complete the set. I should note, as often happens, that my fellow book clubbers and I seem to be voices crying in the wilderness, because the book’s cover comes with gushing endorsements from Stephen Fry, Graham Norton and Marian Keyes. It even won a 2017 prize for popular fiction. It’s the kind of thing many, many people enjoy – sentimental philosophy-lite which posits love as the cure for all ills. You might well find much in it that I’ve missed or dismissed, so do feel free to come out fighting in its defence.