The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

People Are Strange, When You're A Stranger (Review: The Humans by Matt Haig)

The Humans
The Humans
Matt Haig
Canongate 2013

Dr Andrew Martin of Cambridge University is a mathematician. A pretty good one by all accounts. And on one, not particularly special day, he solves a mathematical problem almost as old as mathematics. And promptly disappears. You see, there are folks elsewhere in the chasm of space who pay particular attention to these types of developments. Folks who are advanced beyond our comprehending and feel that the sort of knowledge that Dr Martin had just uncovered may cause the human race to become a little big for it's boots. And so his body is inhabited by an alien being with the sole intention of preventing the spread of this newly discovered information. Basically, to kill everyone who knows anything about it.

Cue entirely stereotypical yet humorously haphazard E.T meets gritty crime drama? Thankfully not. Our extra-terrestrial narrator sources from a planet conquered by mathematics. A planet without death or decay, without pain, suffering or emotion leaving him with no understanding of the motivations of beings who are always on a clock. But he is smart and a lot more human than he realises.. And it is not long before our other-worldly explorer begins to deviate from his assigned mission as feelings for Dr Martin's dysfunctional family begin to form. Much to the dismay of his compatriots back home.

Matt Haig's writing is, as always, exceptional. He provides the narrator with such a convincing and accessible voice that, after only the first few pages, it is in no way unusual or distracting that he is an alien. And, even better, he is so, so funny. The narrator's objective point of view allows for some of the most humorous observations of human behaviour I think I have ever read (my personal favourites being around the habit of humans to constantly state the blatantly obvious and the merits of eating nothing but peanut butter). The juxtaposition between this observational humour and the narrator's interaction with Andrew's severely depressed son, Gulliver, is very striking and extremely thought-provoking. And our narrator's closing words of wisdom to Gulliver may be the most simultaneously beautiful, poignant and life-affirming passage in modern literature.

The supporting cast of Andrew's mentally ill son and frustrated and repressed wife make for some interesting thoughts around family life and I think this will make The Humans a great choice for the book-clubbers among us. But, to be honest, I think it will be a great choice for everyone. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and, most definitely, make you take a look at yourself and what you are really about. One of the aspects of humans that our narrator doesn't understand is how we manage to achieve anything in the constant shadow of our own mortality. Well something that I have learned from The Humans is that being an average, not particularly special, mortal human is beautiful and extraordinary and awesome. Cheers Matt. 

This review was brought to you by Polka-Dot Steph. The Humans is available now and all humans should read it. Also now.  Thank you to the lovely Caroline at Canongate for sending us a copy of this title to review.  You can find Splendibird's review of Matt's earlier book, The Radley's, here.

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