Matt Haig’s novels have crossed my radar a number of times. The Radleys piqued my curiosity, but I’ve never got around to reading it. Whilst I worked in Waterstone’s I had so many requests for ‘that book narrated by a dog’ I felt I must read it myself, yet never managed to. The Humans, Haig’s latest novel, has had a fairly heavy presence on Twitter for quite some time and everything about I heard about it made me think it was my sort of book.
This is in part because Matt Haig is one of the few authors I’ve encountered that uses social media to his advantage. His congenial style, and willingness to converse, rather than plug, make you want to like him and his books. His wonderful blog for Booktrust doesn’t do him any harm either. So, when Canongate sent me a copy of The Humans to review, it was probably the highlight of my tiny blogging career.
I was not disappointed. The Humans is one of those rare books that makes writing look effortless. There is no strain in reading it. Nothing is forced, it’s just pure unadulterated storytelling. It’s the sort of book that makes you think you could be an author, ‘There’s nothing complicated about this, I could do it, no bother.’, belying just how much talent you have to have to write something this good.
The story is beguiling in its premise. Andrew Martin, professor of maths at Cambridge solved one of maths’ great unsolveables. At which point he was exterminated. He was then replaced with an alien life-form tasked with eradicating any evidence of his new theory, up to and including murdering anybody Martin had told. The imposter comes from a supremely intelligent species that operates through pure logic. They have decided the human race is not psychologically equipped to cope with the ramifications of Dr Martin’s discovery, and so, for the good of the universe, they decide to put the boot in.
This plan goes wrong from the outset, when Professor Martin’s doppelgänger finds himself naked, running down a Cambridge street. Instead of carrying out his mission, he becomes entangled with the law and processed into the mental health system. From here he starts to learn more and more about the humans.
‘Humans as a rule don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting and only then once they are dead.’
Much of the novel’s strength comes from everything about humanity being an anathema to its narrator. The alien questions all our basic assumptions and calls us on life’s absurdities.
‘A cow is an Earth-dwelling animal…which humans treat as a one-stop shop for food, liquid refreshment, fertiliser and designer footwear.’
The author derives much humour from this but he also uses it to prise the lid off humanity and give it a good stir. In this respect The Humans resembles The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but instead of a human going out into the universe, the universe has come for a home visit.
As the alien recovers from his ordeal, he sets about trying to do his job, but he finds it more difficult than he expected. He discovers fragility and compassion amongst humanity that he did not expect. Andrew Martin’s life was in turmoil, yet his family remained bound together, why was this? The alien delays his mission to find out more, sending him on a most unexpected journey.
It is Haig’s contention that the binding force of humanity is love, and it is our ability to feel pain that gives it strength. This novel contains many deep, contemplative observations on the nature of love, familial and marital. Its accuracy is breathtaking.
I recently read a YA novel (which I have yet to review) at the heart of which was a bright tempestuous relationship, that is only possible when one is young. As I enter my fifth decade, I found the skipping hearts and trembling innards rather silly. Haig’s novel is about the battered iron core that’s left after years of compromise and altered dreams. It’s about the real deal and is described with perfection.
In this respect The Humans reminded me of Plato’s Symposium, something I read many years ago when I was trying to find a reading for my wedding. Anybody looking for something fresh for a reading or marriage vows should read this book. It is filled with many beautiful passages that encapsulate just what love and marriage should be.
The final and perhaps most heartfelt strand of the novel is that of Prof Martin and his son. I won’t say too much as I wouldn’t do it justice, but the alien’s attempts to repair this foundering relationship are hilarious and heart-breaking all at the same time. They also strike fear into the heart of any dads of three boys that might be reading.
‘Your life will have 25,000 days in it. Make sure you remember some of them.’
It’s hard to describe just how good The Humans is. It’s a book that has something for everybody. After all, it’s about all of us. Funny and life affirming, it’s one of those rarest of books; a feel good read that will stay with you long after reading. Read it, share it, live it.
Many thanks to Canongate for sending me a copy of the book to review. Matt Haig can be found as the Booktrust writer in residence and on Twitter as @matthaig1. He’s well worth a follow. I will of course now be returning to Matt’s backlist to finally read all those other interesting sounding booksm