Book review: “How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig

How To Stop Time imgTom Hazard has an extremely rare condition called anageria which means he ages extremely slowly. He is one of a tiny group of people who live for many hundreds of years. Tom was born in London in 1581 and mixed with the likes of Shakespeare and Marlowe in his youth, worked for Captain Cook in the 1700s and was a jazz pianist in Paris in the 1920s where he met, among others, F Scott Fitzgerald and watched Josephine Baker dance. What an incredibly lucky guy, you might think, but his condition is a curse and does not go unnoticed. He is haunted by the fact that his mother was condemned as a witch in the small village in which they lived, because the locals suspected dark forces at play when her teenage son appeared never to age. In his ‘late teens’ he meets and falls in love with Rose, and they have a child, Marion. Rose is the love of Tom’s life and although they move around, trying to avoid staying in one place too long and attracting attention, he realises that his existence presents a danger to Rose and the child. He has no choice but to leave her. The last time Tom sees Rose is when she is in her 50s, on her death bed with the plague, while he still looks like the young man she fell in love with many years earlier.

Tom has to spend his long and eventful life dodging attention, changing location every eight years or so. He, and others with his condition, are part of a worldwide secret organisation known as Albatross, led by the slightly sinister now elderly Dutchman, Hendrick. ‘Albas’, as they are known, are committed to keeping their condition secret and thereby protecting themselves from scrutiny. They fear discovery by the scientific community and what this might mean. Superstition has treated them badly in the past. Hendrick rules the organisation and controls its members, cleverly maintaining their loyalty with a delicate balance of threat and the promise of protection.

But Tom is unhappy. His condition brings him nothing but pain and grief. He lost his mother in brutal circumstances and his wife and daughter, all because of anageria. Hendrick keeps him close by telling him that his daughter Marion has inherited the condition and assuring Tom that he will find her, but Tom becomes increasingly suspicious of Hendrick’s motives.

In the present day, Tom’s new role is as a history teacher in an east London secondary school. He is a success, bearing the uncanny ability to ‘bring history alive’ to even the most apathetic of his students. At the school Tom meets Camille, a young French teacher, to whom he is attracted. The feeling is mutual, but of course, Tom knows a relationship is impossible. Tom’s inconsistent behaviour towards Camille makes her suspicious.

Thus, the scene is set for a complex and fascinating plot. The novel jumps back and forth in time from present day east London to Shakespearean London, where Tom was a renowned lute player, to the 18th century where Tom sailed to the Indies with Cook, to more recent times when Tom has had to carry out certain international missions to serve the secret organisation.

Haig creates a huge range of interesting characters and it is quite an achievement that he gives them all a depth and uniqueness, which many writers could only achieve with a much smaller cast. The book was not at all difficult to follow, despite the frequent changes of era and setting. For me, my favourite sections were the present-day ones, though, as Tom explored with great poignancy the tragedy of his existence which means he cannot build intimate connection with anyone outside the organisation, for fear not only of exposing himself but of placing them in danger; bad things happen to people who find out about the Albas. Tom is lonely and alone. The people he has loved are all gone and so he fears love. The recounting of past events in Tom’s life help to create and augment the picture of his existence where an overly extended life is a curse not something to be striven for. The unnaturalness of Tom’s situation, the burden he must bear, is profoundly portrayed.

I listened to this book on audio and the narrator, Mark Meadows, was excellent, developing an impressive range of distinctive voices and accents to distinguish the different characters. He also conveyed well a sense of Tom’s building frustration and despair, so much so that his final actions in the book are not only plausible, but completely inevitable.

I recommend this book highly.

Have you read this or any of Matt Haig’s other books? He is everywhere at the moment!

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Theatre review: “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett

I consider fortunate to live in Manchester with its wonderful theatres. I grew up in and spent many years working in central London where you are spoilt for choice for theatre and the Arts, but, reality check, with a family it’s not so easy to exploit all those opportunities. The great thing about Manchester and the Royal Exchange Theatre in particular, is that whatever you see there you can pretty much guarantee it’s going to be good. And now that Maxine Peake seems to have made it her creative home, with so many productions in which she stars or directs, you know you are going to get something special.

I can’t say I’m that familiar with Beckett’s work; apart from Waiting for Godot, I’ve not seen any of his other plays. My husband is quite a fan though so we went along to Happy Days last week. It runs until 23 June, so if you have an opportunity to go and see it – DO! It is pretty special.

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Before the start – Maxine Peake, as Winnie, up to her waist in a mound of earth.

The play is basically a monologue, with Maxine as Winnie, middle-aged, lonely and trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, disconnected from wider society. This is represented quite literally with her up to her waist in a mound of earth, unable to move. Her husband, Willie, lies below, and speaks only very occasionally when addressed by the increasingly desperate Winnie. He is more mobile, but chooses not to be, spending his days lying in the sun, or in his hole, while Winnie chatters endlessly above him about nothing. The skill of the actor here, though, is conveying Winnie’s loneliness and her increasingly desperate mental state with meaningless dialogue and constrained physical movement. This is where the intimacy of the Royal Exchange works so well; the mound of earth rotates so that everyone in this round auditorium can see the lines of anxiety on Winnie’s face, the cracks in her mask. Her daily routine, the morning bell, the evening bell and all the little grooming and time-killing rituals in between, means she is just about holding it together. But for how long?

Spoiler Alert!

The second act gets a shade or two darker still and is quite shocking. By this stage Winnie is buried neck-deep and Willie is nowhere to be seen; he appears briefly at one point, encircling the mound in a morning suit. He has clearly moved on. Winnie is alone. At the start of act two Winnie is hanging on to her sanity by her fingernails. Despite the audience only being able to see her head (there are a number of screens so you can see her up close), Maxine Peake still manages to connect intensely via her facial movements, the interpretation of the words and her raw emotions. It is quite extraordinary.

The next production in the Royal Exchange’s main auditorium is The Queens of the Coal Age, written by Maxine Peake and directed by her long-time collaborator Sarah Frankcom. It promises to be another must-see. It can’t be long, surely, before Maxine attains national treasure status, but for the moment she is definitely regional treasure and we are very lucky to have her.

Go and see this play if you have the chance.

If you have seen this production, what did you think?

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Book Review: “Three Things About Elsie” by Joanna Cannon

I was fortunate to be given a signed copy of Joanna Cannon’s second book by friends for my birthday back in January. (Her first book, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, is on the list of books I want to read, but I haven’t managed it yet.) My book club picked this for our most recent read, and we all loved it! It’s the best thing I’ve read in ages, the most human, the most touching and the most interesting and unusual plot. It’s beautifully written, the dialogue and characters are authentic and wholly recognisable and it’s an engaging and compelling read.

three things about else imgThe central character of the novel is Florence Claybourne, elderly resident at the Cherry Tree sheltered housing development. Each of the residents has their own apartment, but the block is warden-controlled by Miss Bissell and Miss Ambrose, and there is a Day Room where communal activities are held. Some of the residents are frailer than others and there is the sense that this is the feeder facility for the local residential care home, Greenbank. The eponymous Elsie is Florence’s best friend, that’s the first ‘thing’ about Elsie; they have known each other since they were at school. The second ‘thing’ is that Elsie ‘always knows what to say to make me feel better’; Elsie always sounds a note of calm and reassurance whenever Florence becomes tense or upset, as she does frequently when the events of the novel unfold. Elsie and Florence are constant companions.

In the opening chapter of the novel, entitled ‘4.48pm’ we meet Florence lying on the floor in her apartment. She has had a fall and finds she is unable to reach her emergency cord, wondering who will find her and when. Florence’s abandonment on the floor proceeds almost in real time (at the end of the novel it is 11.12pm and she has still not been discovered, don’t worry that’s not a spoiler!) and whilst she is lying there she has flashbacks about recent events at Cherry Tree and the connection with her past life and her relationship with Elsie. It is through these flashbacks that the story of the novel unfolds. It’s a clever structure and works very well.

Life at Cherry Tree was predictable and dull until the arrival of a new resident. Florence immediately recognises him as a figure from her and Elsie’s past, a former boyfriend of Elsie’s sister Beryl, who appears to have had an abusive relationship with her and was somehow connected with Beryl’s mysterious death, though nothing was ever proved. Florence is convinced this new resident is Beryl’s former lover, Ronnie Butler, but unfortunately, this resident is called Gabriel Price and Ronnie’s body was allegedly found in the canal a little after Beryl’s death. Florence manages to convince Elsie and another friend and fellow resident, Jack, that Gabriel is Ronnie and has some sinister intent in seeking them out after all these years. Certain odd things start happening, such as items in Florence’s flat being moved, the sudden appearance in her kitchen of a cupboard full of Battenburg cakes, and a fire averted in Florence’s flat after an iron was left on while she was out. These events set Florence up against Miss Ambrose, Cherry Tree’s manager, who has been charmed by the amiable and charismatic Mr Price, and who already finds Florence rebellious and truculent, and now feels she may be declining into dementia. She puts Florence ‘on probation’, warning her that if her behaviour continues in this vein she will have no choice but to send her to the dreaded Greenbank.

The rest of the novel is about Florence, Jack and Elsie’s quest to uncover the truth about Gabriel Price and his involvement with Elsie’s family, and particularly the circumstances of Beryl’s death. It is at times laugh out loud, as the intrepid trio grapple with the challenges of old age, but it is always poignant. It is a moving and sobering tale about how often elderly people in our society are lonely and disempowered, shuffled off to care homes to await the end of their lives, and not always with respect.

“’How can you talk to somebody when even their eyes aren’t listening.’”

Florence and her friends reflect on the futility of possessions as you approach the end of life, and the greater importance of love and relationships. It is not just in old age that this happens, however; some of the employees at Cherry Tree lead equally unsatisfying lives without meaningful human connection.

As the book progresses, the Ronnie Butler/Gabriel Price mystery unfolds and we learn more about Florence and Elsie and Jack, about Handy Simon, Cherry Tree’s resident maintenance man, Miss Ambrose, and the events of their earlier lives. There is a stunning denouement at the end, when we find out the third thing about Elsie, which I absolutely did not see coming! The book is wonderful as an observation of old age, and that alone would have been enough, but coupled with a sophisticated and brilliantly worked plot it is a tour de force, truly a novel for our time.

There are some really powerful and moving observations in this book, beautifully expressed in some wonderful passages – I wish I could quote them all. So, unusually, I’ll end with some extracts that I hope will give you a flavour of the novel.

I recommend this book highly.

Florence reflects on the death of a fellow Cherry Tree resident:

“The skip was filled with her life – Brenda’s, or Barbara’s, or perhaps Betty’s. There were ornaments she had loved and paintings she had chosen. Books she’d read, or would never finish; photographs that had smashed from their frames as they’d hit against the metal. Photographs she had dusted and cared for, of people who were clearly no longer here to claim themselves from the debris. It was so quickly disposed of, so easily dismantled. A small existence, disappeared. There was nothing left to say she’d ever been there.”

“When your days are small, routine is the only scaffolding that holds you together.”

Florence reflects on the changes to the high street:

“’And every other shop is a hairdressers. I never realised people had so much hair.’”

Florence on the swift passage of time:

“’You always think “one day”, don’t you, and then you realise you’ve reached the point when you’ve run out of them.’”

“It’s only when you get old that you realise whichever direction you choose to face, you find yourself confronted with a landscape filled up with loss.”

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