So here’s a funny thing. I have a book by Matt Haig on my “to read” shelf over on Goodreads. It’s called The Dead Fathers Club and it’s on there because a) I am always up for reading modernised novels based on Shakespeare plays (I’m already beside myself about the Hogarth Shakespeare project, but that’s another story) and because b) my father died all too recently. That’s not really the funny thing. The funny thing is, since I bang on about books pretty much all the time over on my twitter account, out of the blue, Matt Haig started following me. I followed him back and earlier this year, to celebrate the paperback publication of The Humans, he had a little twitter competition to give away some signed copies. All you had to do was watch this video and tweet him the name of the film he is making a reference to at the end. I entered and blow me down if I didn’t win.
That’s an awfully long preamble with a full on name drop in it, I know. But I’m about to rhapsodise over this gorgeous little book and so it’s only fair that you can all decide how big you think your pinch of salt should be as you read it. The Humans tells the story of an alien from the planet Vonnadoria who takes the corporeal form of Professor Andrew Martin. See, our poor doomed professor just solved the Riemann Hypothesis, and the Vonnadorians don’t think the messy human race is ready for the massive technological advancements said proof will provide. So our otherwise unnamed narrator takes on Martin’s form, after Martin is killed, with the primary objective of eliminating everyone who knows about the Riemann solution, all the time fitting in on Earth and not drawing undue attention to himself.
It doesn’t start well when he materialises in the middle of Cambridge, stark naked and without a firm grasp on the English language (so not unlike Arnie at the beginning of The Terminator then). He winds up sectioned for his own protection and the whole “episode” is written off as a breakdown. Freed into the care of his family, Martin sets about his task. But, of course, it’s not as easy as all that. Along the way, he realises that the Martin family are massively dysfunctional and is overcome with a desire to help them. He starts to care about his wayward teenage son and his unhappy wife (all the while conversing with the family dog) and begins to feel emotions. The alien Andrew Martin takes a slow journey from pitying and hating the human race, baffled by our everyday existences, to discovering that those existences can be pretty wonderful things.
Matt Haig has spoken openly about his struggles with depression and anxiety and so it’s no surprise to read in the afterword that he conceived the idea for this book when he was in the grips of anxiety so bad that the thought of going to the shops would induce a panic attack. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, not understood themselves or the people around them, but always been able to find the joy in a piece of music, poetry or a good book (which is pretty much all of us), will see themselves in this wonderful story. Anyone who reads the toy castle analogy of what it’s like to live will not forget it in a hurry, and the three page chapter titled “How To Be A Human” contains enough beautifully constructed wisdom to make you ache.
It seems odd that a book like this should be labelled important, but it is. If you think I’m being ever more hyperbolic, I refer you to this review. It’s easy to take a potshot at its predictability that alien Andrew does a better job at being a human than his flesh and blood counterpart, but I don’t think anyone would get past the first thirty pages without realising exactly where it’s headed. If ever there was a case of “it isn’t where you go, it’s how you get there”, it would be this one. For an ending to be so clear cut from so early on but to still cause a lump in my throat is no mean feat. Anyway, I’ve banged on for long enough now, so do yourselves a favour. Buy this book. Read it. And then read it again.