The Humans by Matt Haig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
DISCLAIMER: I have not obeyed my usual rules in writing this review.
Normally, I approach every novel with as clean a slate as I possibly can. I try to find out as little as possible about the plot and even less about the author. That way I can enjoy (or endure) the ride for what it is rather than what I preconceived it would be. Even with great classics, where you often can’t avoid knowing something about the author at least, I try to read as little as I can to avoid contamination – if I think I’m likely to read a particular classic at all. I like a ‘tabula rasa’ as much as I can.
This book by Matt Haig should have been an easy one. I vaguely knew the name but didn’t have a clue about what books he’d written or why. But over the last year or so I’ve increasingly spent time on Twitter – which I absolutely loathe but have to use for my work as a writer, and am slowly becoming addicted to even though my loathing increases every day. I came across a few of Haig’s tweets and found myself agreeing with him, even liking him. Before I knew it, I’d clicked the ‘follow’ button.
I’ve followed his tweets for quite some time now and still find I like him considerably. I only picked up ‘The Humans’ at all because I like who he is as a person (as much as you can tell anything like that from tweets). As it happens, this month I will be reviewing the theatre production of his book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ – which is why I didn’t choose arguably his most famous book to start with – and I wanted to have read at least one of his books before doing so.
So, I have broken a cardinal rule – I knew the author long before reading the book – and this means I am officially biased. Well so be it. I’m not ashamed to say that I greatly admire the man. I’ve learnt from him. I’ve learned it is possible to be a really, really nice, loving, gentle guy and say the word ‘fuck’ repeatedly in tweets and get really, really angry with idiot trolls, stupid politicians and anyone who is generally nasty to others (for Haig that’s particularly those who are abusive about mental health). I’ve learned that it is possible to be open and honest on Twitter. I’ve also learned (more, reconfirmed, to be honest) that such honesty brings a plethora of haters who seem to have no other purpose on Twitter than to troll Matt Haig. This is why I hate Twitter so much. But I’ve also had the beautiful joy of seeing how many people, on a daily basis, talk about how Matt Haig’s books saved their lives – quite, quite literally. This is why I don’t close my Twitter account down. You get the full gamut of behaviour on Twitter – which brings me nicely to the novel under consideration.
‘The Humans’, I suspect, will stir similar lovers and haters of Matt Haig. Ostensibly, it is a sci-fi novel about an alien taking the place of a mathematician to destroy all evidence of the solution he’s found which will leapfrog the human race into the stars. For the sake of the universe he will kill those who know – including this mathematician’s wife and son.
As such, it could be considered a ‘trashy novel’ – which you’ll either devour or roll your eyes at. But all sci-fi really has a deeper purpose: to put human beings into unfamiliar circumstances for the reader to see what humanity is really made of. By doing so, we ask ourselves ‘are we good or are we bad?’ In the case of Haig’s book, it is an alien who is asking these questions. This then is the real thrust of the story – to hold a mirror up to humanity and make us look at ourselves. Such a task completely resonates with me.
Haig achieves this though with good humour, gentleness and with a clear belief that, deep down, people are worth it. Love and kindness are absolutely central tenets to his philosophy. At the same time, he doesn’t hold back in telling us that people can be pretty shitty. In the context of the novel, it works and does so without being preachy.
I don’t agree with absolutely everything Matt Haig says. On his tweets there are one or two issues with which I don’t entirely concur – it would be superficial and ludicrous if I did. I’m not sure I have the same optimism or belief system about the goodness of humanity nor about the central idea that ‘all you need is love’. Nevertheless, the book fulfils one of my most important criterion: that at the end I care about what happens next to the characters. I was left smiling and a little sad the story had come to an end; can’t ask for more than that. I’m not sure ‘The Humans’ is a classic, but it is certainly a delightful, well-written and thoughtful story which will give you a few hours of enjoyable reading. I can easily imagine this being turned into a film and, if it does, I will definitely be going to see it. In the meantime, the book has left me hungering for the main feast coming up on stage soon. I’m pretty certain I’m going to be blown away – but I’ll try not to let that preconception get in the way of my review.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.