Author: Matt Haig
My copy: Canongate Books, 2014
There’s no place like home. Or is there?
After an ‘incident’ one wet Friday night where he is found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge, Professor Andrew Martin is not feeling quite himself. Food sickens him. Clothes confuse him. Even his loving wife and teenage son are repulsive to him. He feels lost amongst a crazy alien species and hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton, and he’s a dog.
Who is he really? And what could make someone change their mind about the human race…?
This is first time I’ve been exposed to Matt Haig’s writing and I absolutely fell in with it; the witty honesty, the insight and his ability to hook me as a reader from the start. This book is not normally the type I would go for and I’m ashamed to say I would shrug it off or overlook it in a book shop. However I saw a tag recently on here (I’m sorry I can’t remember who it was or what the tag was!) and this book did catch my attention. As you probably all know by now, I do enjoy anything to do with aliens or outer space related so I thought I’d give it a try.
The story of the novel seems, and is, simple enough: Andrew Martin is a mathematician and professor at the University of Cambridge, whose life’s work revolves around solving the Riemann hypothesis. This theory is one of the greatest unsolved maths problems of our time (apparently, I had to look it up) and solving it would unlock great technological advantages for mankind. Andrew Martin solves this unsolvable theory but it does not have the consequences probably dreamed of. A superior alien race, the Vonnadorians, believe that the human race is not ready for such an advancement as they consider us to be primitive, ruled by our love of violence and sex. The nameless narrator, a Vonnadorian, is given the task of wiping out all trace of the solved Riemann theory, including the people Andrew Martin may have told. Taking the form of the professor, the alien narrator at first believes his mission will be easy because he despises humans, finding them ugly and technologically backward. However, he soon begins to realise that humankind is more than he ever imagined and slowly starts to feel more at home on alien Earth than he ever did on his planet.
What makes this novel so fantastic is the way in which the alien protagonist describes and tries to make sense of ordinary human actions and rituals that we take for granted. The humour of the novel is really infectious and it’s really refreshing to see what we consider mundane through new eyes. For example, the narrator cannot fathom why clothes play such a big part in human life:
For instance, I did not understand why clothes were so important.
And it made me think: why ARE clothes so important? Haig really makes you think and the novel is such a great insight into what makes us human. The narrator develops further his thoughts on clothes:
What I am saying is it takes time to understand humans because they don’t understand themselves. They have been wearing clothes for so long. Metaphorical clothes. That is what I am talking about. That was the price for human civilisation – to create it they had to close the door on their true selves. And so they are lost, that is how I understand it.
The book is full little philosophical thoughts such as this one. It makes you think and sometimes I felt ashamed of how humans could be perceived from the outside, but mostly I came way feeling proud to be a human.
What I found both heart-warming and sad was the fact that the author, Matt Haig, identified with the nameless alien narrator. In the acknowledgements Haig reveals that he suffered from a panic disorder and, because of this, the world around him felt as alien to him as it does the aliens in the story. But just as the Vonnadorian begins to understand, appreciate and love the complex beauty, Haig did too. I think it’s wonderful that the novel and such a heartfelt story and meaning behind it. The book also addresses other complex mental health issues through the character of Gulliver, Andrew Martin’s teenage son. Gulliver has a poor relationship with his father and often feels inferior to his highly intelligent parents, which culminates in him attempting suicide. Strangely enough, it is the alien posing as his father who saves his life and later helps Gulliver to heal and recover from the grip of mental illness.
I could go on and on about this book, because I love it so much. It’s one of those rare books which will resonate with everyone and leave everyone with a smile on their face. It’s like a hug in a story: you will feel proud to be human and laugh at how seriously we can take our lives. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone who wants to feel uplifted; who’d have thought such a deceptively simple novel would have left me feeling so warm and fuzzy inside?
Favourite quotes (I couldn’t pick just one!):
And I knew then the point of love. The point of love was to help you survive. The point was also to forget meaning. To stop looking and start living. The meaning was to hold the hand of someone you care about and live inside the present. Past and future were myths. The past was just the present that had died and the future would never exist anyway, because by the time we got to it the future would have turned into the present.The ever-moving, ever-changing present. And the present was fickle. It could only be caught by letting go.
I was drinking a cup of tea. I actually enjoyed tea. It was so much better than coffee. It tasted like comfort.