Whenever I find something beautiful or moving in a book, I turn the page down. This is my copy of The Humans.
Matt Haig has made no secret of his battle with mental illness. For anyone who has been through it, or witnessed its impact on someone close, it is a life changing experience. Like most serious issues however, it is probably best explored with a humorous eye and make no mistake The Humans is a very funny book.
But it is a rare talent that can take a devastating personal episode and transform it into something that sheds light on the human condition, and a rarer one still that can achieve this while telling an entertaining story. That’s what Matt Haig has accomplished in The Humans, and it is an extraordinary book.
Professor Andrew Martin is dead. Shortly after solving the Riemann hypothesis, he was murdered by the Vonnadorian assassin who now inhabits his body and is on a high-stakes mission to save the universe. His brief is simple: find Martin’s theorem, eradicate all trace of it and kill any witnesses.
It seemed a straightforward plan on his own planet where logic and mathematics form the basis of society. However life on earth – our alien soon discovers - is somewhat more complicated and although he controls Martin’s body he hasn’t retained his knowledge of being human. This, it fast becomes apparent, is rather a large oversight.
As you’d imagine, the comic repercussions are immediate. ‘Professor Martin’ struggles to blend in with the most basic human behaviour, a situation not helped by his failure to arrive on earth wearing clothes and his reliance on Cosmopolitan for relationship advice (we’ve all been there). Unsurprisingly, he ends up in a psychiatric hospital.
But it is what Haig does with this scenario that makes The Humans so special. This book is infused with the experience of breakdown, not in a mawkish or preachy sense, but with a subtlety that sits perfectly with the narrative.
Dissociated from Martin’s identity, our alien is both absorbed by the minutiae of ‘being human’ and a dispassionate observer of it. As Haig writes in an endnote, ‘when I was in the grips of panic disorder… human life felt as strange for me as it does for the unnamed narrator.’
Delicately, he replicates this experience in the reader. By making what is familiar seem strange and alien, insight and distance are triggered simultaneously. The effect is to make the reader look at life from a new angle, drawing him in while at the same time keeping him at arm’s length.
It is a very effective device. Affection is evoked for the simple things we take for granted, while our more ludicrous pretensions are laid bare. But it is the conclusions drawn that are so moving. Take this view of Earth’s strangeness:
‘I tried to see the similarity. I told myself that here all things were still made of atoms, and that those atoms would work precisely as atoms always do. They would move towards each other if there was distance between them. If there was no distance between them, they would repel each other. That was the most basic law of the universe, and it applied to all things, even here. There was comfort in that. The knowledge that wherever you were in the universe, the small things were always exactly the same. Attracting and repelling. It was only by not looking closely enough that you saw difference.’
It’s elegant and obvious, when viewed from outside. And as ‘Professor Martin’ gradually discovers the wonders of being human, so too does the reader. It’s an ingenious driver for the narrative, for as the tensions of the mission change the reader grows increasingly invested in its outcome. It’s a process of slowly rediscovering life’s wonder, and it is beautifully done.
If you’ve ever wondered what makes life both terrifying and special, this is the book for you. It transforms an intensely personal experience into a story that is both widely relevant and accessible, and for any writer that's not an easy thing to pull off. For those who like their insights in bullet points, there's even a seven page checklist of 'advice for a human' towards the end. It’s funny, poignant and may teach you things you haven't considered about life on earth. Except number 79 - I think we all suspected that.