|Matt Haig at the North Cornwall Literary Festival|
This premise allows for a lot of fun. Haig writes well and lightly, managing to communicate the human condition with a combination of wry humour and pathos. Tom is born in an era of witch-hunts and his mother is publicly ducked for a hag because of her son. He meets Shakespeare and gets to work at the Globe Theatre, he plays jazz piano in a 1920's Parisian restaurant and he sails the oceans with Cook. All these impossibilities are handled beautifully as we make a tour of the human condition across centuries of experience. And we learn that the fundamentals don't change. People live, love, and die. Meaning is created through relationships whether you are a market seller in 1599 or a french teacher in 2017.
And here is the rub. Tom is a member of Albatross, an organisation made up of people like him. Recruited into the organisation by Hendrich in 1891, it is set up to protect those with the condition. Hendrich organises new identities and ensures that Alba members move every 8 years, the time he has allotted that is safe. Beyond 8 years and people start to notice that you are different and questions are asked. Terrified that first the witch-hunters, then the scientists will want to use those with anageria, Hendrich is obsessive about keeping his members anonymous in the wider world. The only rule of the club therefore, is that you must never fall in love.
And yet, the book shows us the universality of human experience. We are essentially social beings.We have a primeval desire to couple, to procreate. The anonymity enforced by the Albas results only in loneliness and isolation, and Tom inevitably falls foul of the rules. It is this "failure" that creates pathos. It means that the reader can empathise with him in a way that it is impossible with the mechanical, robotic logic of Hendrich.
In the present, Tom is a history teacher in London. This allows for comedic moments where he lets slip facts that only an eyewitness might know. He makes wry comments about modern life from the perspective of someone who has known Hackney as a village, and the city with no cars. The novel is essentially a whistle-stop tour of world history give-or-take a few key events!
The book is helpfully structured into chapters that let us know where, and more importantly, when we are! It begins with a context of the condition and then gives us some bearings for Tom in the present. It then jumps around across centuries and cities as we discover a collection of salient experiences in Tom's very long life. In doing so, it builds a story of control, smoke and mirrors perpetuated by the Albatross team and a more compelling strand of a life that is hard to live and harder to enjoy. It is a book where Tom loses his way and finds it again (more than once!) and is essentially about learning how to be comfortable in your own skin.
|My Granny with Child 2!|
So seize the day! Be blessed and look around you with joy. We have one life: love one another, appreciate one another and take time to breathe, to read, to walk along the riverbank and enjoy! As the bard himself famously wrote, (although I wasn't there to hear it!) "Above all to thine own self be true!"