Sunday, 14 July 2013

Review: 'The Humans' by Matt Haig

I got this novel through Netgalley because I thought the premise sounded really interesting and funny. And I am certainly glad I read it. 
It's hardest to belong when you're closest to home . . .
One wet Friday evening, Professor Andrew Martin of Cambridge University solves the world's greatest mathematical riddle. Then he disappears. 
When he is found walking naked along the motorway, Professor Martin seems different. Besides the lack of clothes, he now finds normal life pointless. His loving wife and teenage son seem repulsive to him. In fact, he hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton. And he's a dog. 
Can a bit of Debussy and Emily Dickinson keep him from murder? Can the species which invented cheap white wine and peanut butter sandwiches be all that bad? And what is the warm feeling he gets when he looks into his wife's eyes?
Initially, it was the premise of the book that drew me in. Although I am a sci-fi fan, I usually stay away from its fiction because it often tends to be rather samey. But mentioning Emily Dickinson in your premise is bound to draw me in. What made me continue reading after the first couple of chapters was the tone and style of Haig's writing. The humour seemed effortless, which is commendable considering the huge amount of work that seems to go into the jokes in some novels. I found myself laughing out loud at the simple phrasing of some sentences. Occasionally it was the kind of laughter where you find someone has managed to capture exactly the awkwardness or emotion of an experience you yourself would rather not find written down, yet still find fascinating. At other times it is the pure happiness at something honestly funny. What makes this humour special is the fact that only after having read the sentence or paragraph, do you realise the truth behind some of the statements you previously sniggered at.

Many authors try to capture what we like to call humanity in their novels and they don't always succeed. It quickly becomes obvious when they try to hard to analyze feelings while pretending the analysis is an accident. A complete lack of observation, however, is equally frustrating. It was clear from the onset of the novel that human nature would be questioned in 'The Humans' and I did find myself wondering in the first chapters how Haig would manage to keep the reader interested throughout. The first chapters are, quite naturally, slower than those that follow. The reader has to get used to the characters and plot and the author wants to get to the actual story. But just as the main character has to settle into the human world, the reader has to settle into the world created by the author. Once we accept that an alien might actually find his way to Earth, his puzzlement over an understandably confusing Cosmopolitan seems much more natural. From there on, Alien Andrew's progress in the human world is not only endearing but also revealing in itself and truly managed to hold my attention. Although the plot in itself is nothing too shocking, the way it is written and what it triggers inside the reader is why I enjoyed this novel so much.

The confusion of the main character, which lasts for much of the novel, is not only funny but also quite understandable. I also often ask myself why I drink coffee. However, it is the human characters in this novel that I found truly interesting most of all. The way they interact with Alien Andrew and his apparent "amnesia on anything normal or human" was oddly comforting, the same way that looking at a picture of your family is. There are the occasional oddities and the family member you wish would just straighten themself out, but overall it is safe and normal. By managing to create such a backdrop for Alien Andrew's Discovery of Humanity, the discovering becomes much less standard and more natural. Rather than picking up on each human pattern of behaviour and declaring it oddly adorable, his investigation becomes similar to looking around a familiar room and wondering why the true purpose of each object never seemed so strange yet obvious to you. 

Looking at something as familiar as your own life and seeing it as new is only really possible through the eyes of an other. Haig's Vonnadorians seem to be what we'd like to be and at the same time complete opposite of us humans, logical and capable of seemingly everything. Although we never see their world in action, it seems like a theoretically superior world, which means the main character's perspective is one of looking down. And it is surprising that it is exactly through this perspective that the beauty of the human World shines brightest. Yes, human lives usually are a complete chaos of emotions, but Haig writes down exactly what I have been telling myself for years. It is this up and down, the experiencing of pain and sadness next to happiness and joy, that makes joy and happiness all the more radiant and beautiful. Without one the other could not be and that is what a purely logical approach misses out on. Appreciating the fact I am outing myself as a geek, this is why Spock or any other "logical" character always shows emotion in any (Star Trek) series or movie, because every character's development, no matter how small their human side, ends in realizing exactly this idea.

I give this novel...


I enjoyed this novel immensly and have to admit I almost raced through it. From the moment I started reading, I did not want to put it down. Haig manages to capture something that is intrinsically human, namely the ability to be surprised and to feel experiences, rather than observe and it makes for a beautiful reading experience. This is a great novel to take along on a summer holiday. Its humour keeps it light while its message is bound to strike close to the heart. Also, the dog is great.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome review!
    I read The Radley's by him and loved it... I have a feeling I would really love this one too.
    Adding to my list.