Years before he took on the role of Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was in a short-lived FOX show called New Amsterdam. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either; Coster-Waldau was easy on the eye and the show raised some interesting questions about the burdens of outliving those around you again and again. I had almost forgotten about that series until I started to read Matt Haig’s novel, How To Stop Time.
The main character, Tom Hazard, is not immortal, but he is very old—more than 400 years old—and he doesn’t look a day over 41. He ages extremely slowly and that has meant a life of constantly moving from city to city and country to country to avoid attracting attention. He is not the only person with this condition; he belongs to a group called the Albatross Society, headed by the charismatic Hendrich. They call themselves albaswhile they refer to normally aging people as mayflies. In exchange for the protection that the Albatross Society provides, Tom must change identities every eight years and also go on missions to recruit other albas.
As the novel opens, Tom has come to London and taken on the old “new” identity of Tom Hazard, a history teacher at a private secondary school. As he attempts to sink into this new role, Tom finds it both easy and difficult. He enjoys talking about history with his students, but at the same time, his past, often painful, seems to be everywhere as he walks streets and neighborhoods that he walked in Shakespeare’s time. As a younger man in the early 1600s, Tom fell in love, married, had a daughter, Marion, and then had to leave his family behind when the age gap between him and his wife, Rose, grew too noticeable.
The novel shifts between Tom’s present and past and that mirrors the way that Tom’s complicated and guilt-filled memories rise up to obscure his view of present events. Things get even more complicated when Tom connects with the school’s French teacher, Camille, and realizes that he might potentially violate the main rule of the albas-never fall in love.
There’s a lot to like about this novel—from the glimpses of Tom’s life in past centuries to his musings on current technology and trends from a 450-year-old perspective. Though there is a bit of a “thriller” plot mixed into the story, the real engines driving this novel are the characters and the exploration of the dangers and pitfalls of living so long—including the danger of outliving your humanity.