Book Review: The Humans by Matt Haig

The Humans by Matt Haig - Header

I wrote in my review of What Milo Saw by Virginia Macgregor that I follow a lot of writers on Twitter and, as a result, dip in and out of their literacy musings through the natural saturation of promotion they share. I spend so long flicking past tweets discussing, describing and advertising their books that I just become curious to the stories they hold. It’s like hearing constant background whispers, not really paying attention until one day, you just reach that point where you have to be let in on the secret. To know what’s being said.

I started following Matt Haig on Twitter after I read his semi-memoir Reasons To Stay Alive, which I found uplifting and enjoyable, if not overly engrossing. It is essentially a mission statement of what it means to be alive twisted through his own personal story about a battle with mental illness. But, before it though, he had dabbled with writing about mental illness by creating The Humans, a book that thinly veils the isolating bleakness of depression and what it means to recover from it by using the metaphor of an alien hiding on earth, adapting to the unknown stimulations of life. Of being Human.

Scared Alien - The Humans by Matt Haig

It’s a clever metaphor to use and give the book a real joy and passion. It creates a naivety and childlike quality to the main character that instantly engaged me to him and made me his friend. You want to protect him and see him grow. Mental illness works by isolating it’s subject from the world, insulating them the outside by creating barriers through fear and caution and control. So the two fit, the unknown, outsider, taking those first few tentative steps, unsure, scared, trying to be normal and trying to fit in with the path to recovery, of fitting off inner demons to breaking down the barriers and create a life.

Sadly though, while the book starts off doing a brilliant job of creating a character and a story that is clever and interesting it doesn’t last. I adored the opening half because while you can never lose sight of the theme hiding underneath, the story expanding around it, the events and situations that occur as a result of the main characters alien abilities and human nativity, is so interesting and simplistically thought provoking that it charmed me and kept me reading. The problem though, is that as our alien friend becomes accustomed, blends in, the story moves away from this light and fun intergalactic tale and rather than looking outwards, turns it gazes upon itself.

Lover In The Rain (Happiness) - The Humans by Matt Haig

This shifts the story into a personal diatribe about what it means to be human, what it means to fit in, have a life, and it just became a preaching mess. All the wonderful and interesting sub plots and ideas are gone and in their place becomes a constant monotony of how great the simple things in life are. I hate to say it, but it’s almost as though the book has this release of energy. That it’s attempting to show how once recovered, once the shackles of mental illness have been removed, it’s the small things in life that become the best. How life is about the smell of cut grass, of fresh bread, or sunshine after rain. It’s all a bit too “isn’t life wonderful” and “stop stressing start enjoying”. It’s a bit too happy. Our alien friend and his metaphor failing to quite have the impact he originally did, or the enjoyable story he started off living.

I also didn’t like the way the book swung wildly to say that life, recovery and happiness all boil down to love and sharing. That without people in your life, it won’t be rich and fulfilling. It may be true that without a lover, a partner, parents or a dog life may seem empty. But it isn’t everything, life and happiness don’t hinge of having another living being in your life. Mental illness isn’t beaten by waking up to a smiling face each morning. Loneliness is a side effect not a symptom.

Author Matt Haig - The Humans

I will say though that Haig’s writing style is easy to follow and enjoyable to read. There is a natural flow to it that meant I never really had to work at understand or picturing the world and characters he was creating. You can tell though that’s it constructed and edited to feel written rather than spoken. Grammatically it looks polished, but that’s not a criticism because, as I said, I never felt lost, never rereading, unclear as to what was going on. I just followed the story, getting less and less from it as it went.

The Humans is a good and clever book. But having read Reason’s To Stay Alive first, I think it pales slightly in comparison when it comes to it’s conviction because it’s a work of fiction hiding a true explanation. An explanation that is given better through Haig’s own eyes and experiences. If it didn’t swing so wildly, turning from fictional fun to insular monologue, if it had stayed as a simple tale of an alien learning to adapt, to fit in it may have provided more overall, because ultimately, the way it ended just left me feeling cold. It lost it’s personal touch and become nothing more than idealised simplicity.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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