|Image from canongate.co.uk|
Canongate, 6 July 2017
HB, e, 336pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley. I will also be buying my own copy!
This is a wonderful, very human, very tender SF romp through the ages. It does that actual core SF thing of taking a metaphor and making it real.
Tom Hazard is an anomaly. Born in the 16th century (as French aristocrat), he's still full of life and vigour in the early 21st. Tom, and a few men and women like him, are "albas" - short for "albatross" - who age at only 1/15 the rate of normal human beings.
Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Imagine a lifetime of around 1,000 years. The things you'd do, the places you'd go.
Over, and over, again.
Everyone you know dying while you're still young. Even those you love most.
Your friends and neighbours turning against you, suspicious of your longevity.
Having to move on every few years, before people notice you're not growing older.
Doesn't sound so good now, does it? And that's only the beginning. I haven't even started on the "memory headaches".
Haig succeeds here in something very hard. He doesn't only take the fantastic central premise of the book and working out all the practicalities, all the likely external consequences, the advantages and disadvantages. More, he manages to inhabit the mind and soul of his protagonist, showing - in frighteningly plausible prose - the awful internal consequences too. The loneliness, the guilt, the self-hate and, above all, the desire to put an end to everything.
And there's still more. Really, I could just go on reading that as long as the author wanted to make it, but perhaps that wouldn't be ideal and Haig wraps around his central idea an entertaining and truthful story. Dotting back and forward in time from the age of Shakespeare to the Pacific exploration of the 18th century, Paris in the 20s and modern London - with a few more besides - he shows what Tom has lost, what he's still searching for - and how he fell in with the mysterious club "The Albatross Society".
Appearing, to begin with, as saviours for Tom and his kind, the Society and its frontman, Hendrich, promise to shelter and protect. But they demand obedience and impose strict rules - the first of which is, never fall in love. Tom knows that if he breaks that rule he'll not only be endangering himself, but whoever he loves. Because the secret of the albas must be kept.
It's an engaging and at times nailbiting story, distinctly thriller-y in places. Tom is one of those protagonists who'll have you clenching your fists or biting you nails, as he seems, yet again, to be in hot water. (Getting himself in hot water, that is.) He's returned to the London streets he knew centuries before, to the streets he knew with his lost love, to become, of all things, a teacher at an inner London comprehensive. (Tom can teach from experience, but will that be enough to pique the interest of disengaged teenagers?)
What good can come of that? Will be be able to to cope? Will he give himself away?
And at the same time, Hendrich seems to have his own plans for Tom...
There are moments of shattering honesty and truth here ("Everyone will become a refugee if they live long enough"). There are promises ("I will solve you" - several of the characters here see themselves, or others, as puzzles to be solved. is that good or a bad way to think of people?). There are lovely turns of phrase ("the illuminated despair of the bus station", "This is what playing the piano does. This is the danger of it. It makes you human") and cynical truths ("every era is clogged with Martins, and they are all dickheads.") The writing is so good it faintly hums - Haig on top form, I think, and never so much as when he introduces historical characters - especially William Shakespeare - as believable ordinary people (something Tom tries to explain to his class of sceptical teenagers).
In short, I really, really enjoyed this book. It manages at the same time to be fun, funny, sad, true and exciting. If there's any justice it will sell by the bucketload and be seen everywhere.
After all, the best way to stop time is with a good book. (That may not be Tom's conclusion - you'll have to read the book to see - but it is what I think).