Friday, 23 June 2017

BOOK CLUB: The Humans by Matt Haig

By Gillian Hamer

This month on Triskele Book Club we discuss The Humans by Matt Haig.

About the book: After an 'incident' one wet Friday night where Professor Andrew Martin is found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge, he is not feeling quite himself. Food sickens him. Clothes confound him. Even his loving wife and teenage son are repulsive to him. He feels lost amongst a crazy alien species and hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton, and he's a dog.

About the author: Matt Haig is a British author for children and adults. His memoir Reasons to Stay Alive was a number one bestseller, staying in the British top ten for 46 weeks. His children's book A Boy Called Christmas was a runaway hit and is translated in over 25 languages. It is being made into a film by Studio Canal and The Guardian called it an 'instant classic'. His novels for adults include the award-winning The Radleys and The Humans. The Guardian summed up his writing as 'funny, clever and quite, quite lovely' by The Times and the New York Times called him 'a writer of great talent'.

Here, Triskele collegues Gill Hamer, Jill Marsh, Liza Perrat and Catriona Troth discuss. 

Did you have any preconceptions about book before you read it?

(GH) Possibly I thought it was more super-natural and so had chosen not to read it earlier because I'm not a huge fan of that genre. Whereas in fact, there is very little about space travel or aliens in the book. Quite a lot about mathematics though!

(JJ) I've read other books by Haig, so expected a mixture of insights, humour and philosophical ponderings. I wasn't disappointed.

(CT) Hard to remember now what my preconceptions were, as it is almost four years since I read it. But I do remember a feeling that the book took me by surprise.

(LP) I didn't really fancy it as I thought it would be too paranormal and fantasy for my tastes. How wrong I was; this book couldn't be more grounded in reality.

The author relies on a wide range of emotions here, added with a light touch, and some parts were moving. How do you think the author handled this?

(GH) One thing I found particularly clever was the gradual 'humanising' of Andrew Martin and his first taste of the human emotion 'love' - which was completely unknown to him. As a being whose only knowledge of humanity came from a back issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, I did think it very believable how the small, almost unseen, steps led him on a totally unexpected journey. Also, seeing the world through eyes of a stranger was quite satisfying - the good things and bad.

(JJ) The light touch leaves room for the reader to fill the gaps with their own experiences. Just as any outsider enters a culture and makes observations on what is different, it focuses attention on habits and behaviours that we take for granted and don't even think about analysing. The touch may be light, but it goes deep when we start to think about how we treat 'aliens' in our environment.

(CT) I've described before it as a concerto in three movements, with each movement having a very different feel. In the first movement, we have advanced-alien-adapting-to-being-in-a-human-body, making foolish mistakes (what is the point of wearing clothes, anyway?) and seeing us at our worst. It has the slightly sniggery, adolescent tone of a Simon Pegg / Nick Frost movie. That light-hearted tone nevertheless allows Haig to sneak in a few serious comments about the human condition. The second movement hits a deeper note. ‘Andrew’ begins to discover some of the more worthwhile things about human beings (like Emily Dickinson). This section is tender, almost lyrical in tone. The third movement, when ‘Andrew’ has to make choices between the interests of his own people and the interests of humans, is shockingly different, sometimes violent. And then there is a coda, which I won’t spoil by saying anything except that it strikes a different note yet again.

(LP) I think it was his light and humorous touch that was so successful in exploring such a wide range of emotions. Issues were never pushed down your throat, or in your face. In fact, you barely knew what he was getting at, until after the event. Then there was the "ah ha" moment, so to speak.

Other than ET, I can't think of too many aliens who have got me emotional! It can't have been an easy task to write an alien character but the author made it look easy. How did you feel about the use of characterisation?

(GH) I'll be honest, I thought the 'wooden' style of the alien character's dialogue might annoy me early on in the book, but I think I must have mellowed just as the character did, because after a while, it seemed perfectly natural. I did relate to Andrew and empathised with him as he faced the conflict of interest that led to the big decision he made. The supporting cast were great, solid and real, especially Gulliver as the confused teenager, and of course, Newton the dog.

(JJ) I'd agree with the term 'mellowed'. The changes the characters undergo are gradual and incremental, and the reader adjusts alongside them. It's something I recognise in people who've lived in other countries for a while. The adaptation changes one's personality, sometimes to the extent that returning 'home' is as much of a shock as leaving in the first place.

(CT) I can think of quite a few aliens that have made me emotional over the years [Alien Nation, District 9, Defiance...] But yes, certainly, the middle section of the book was very moving. Imagine encountering the idea of love for the first time, not as a hormone-fuelled teenager, but as a mature adult. Having all the intensity and freshness of adolescent experience, while still being able to appreciate the subtleties of grown-up, married love.

(LP) I too, cannot get emotional over aliens, but I did start empathising with Andrew as soon as the author "humanised" him, with the human emotion of love. I felt the author created very real people in the other characters too, especially the dog!

There were some laugh aloud moments. What sticks in your mind as the funniest section?

(GH) I thought the opening scenes, with the Cambridge professor wandering the streets naked were particularly funny. And at the opposite end of the scale, when Andrew admitted his adultery, totally unaware of the impact his words were having, were also humorous - but not for him!

(JJ) Yes, that was entertaining, especially in his attempts to respond in kind to outraged motorists. I also found his realisation about Martin's various relationships very funny, as he tried to work out exactly what was going on from interpreting human behaviour.

(CT) I loved innocence of the narrator when he first arrived on Earth, with absolutely no idea why he was utterly failing in his mission objective to ‘just blend in.’ It reminded me of the Petit Nicolas books by RenĂ© Goscinny (better known for Asterix).

(LP) Yes, I agree, a particularly humorous moment was when Andrew admitted his adultery in all innocence, to his wife and could not understand her terrible reaction.

One thing I found appealing, was how the author cleverly used a stranger (or alien) to point out the negatives about what it is to be human. I thought this was very smart. What insights did you find the cleverest?

(GH) I think Gulliver finding the strength to face down his bullies was a very strong storyline. I like how the author showed that you didn't need super powers to make a difference.

(JJ) Probably the essence of how much time we waste on the insignificant and how little we spend on appreciating the truly valuable.

(CT) I think the overall sense that we humans could be better versions of ourselves if we would just let the scales fall from our eyes and see things with fresh vision was what made the deepest impression.

(LP) That most of us never take the time to "really smell the flowers"; that we don't live for the moment. 

Overall, what most appealed to you about the book?

(GH) Probably the clever insights into humanity that as humans we fail to notice. Much of the time it was as much to do with what the author didn't say, as what he did. To see the world through the eyes of a stranger has a way of putting things into perspective, and I think the author used this approach really well. I certainly came away from the book with lots of ideas.

(JJ) The biggest impact for me was applying the same light-hearted points about acceptance, repulsion and confusion regarding social codes to real situations, such as the refugee crisis. It makes us ask ourselves, what does it mean to be human?

(CT) That change of key from the crudely funny to the tenderly lyrical was so well handled and crept up so unexpectedly.

(LP) The author's excellent insight into the human race: the good, the bad and the ugly. All seen through the eyes of an alien and thus, objective and totally believable.

Despite the humour of the story, the author also uses the book to put across the importance of a range of issues from climate change to bullying. Do you think this was an important part of the book?

(GH) I felt this was the author's main purpose in writing the book, but it wasn't done in a patronising way, and it certainly wasn't rammed down the reader's throats either. It was more of an explanation of where we're heading and the changes we need to make now if we want to make a difference. I take my hat off to the author for being brave enough to write the book for that reason - and for keeping the book so entertaining too.

(JJ) Very much so. It would have been easy to skirt such issues and keep this full of laughs. I admire Haig's willingness to tackle tough subjects and point out the responsibilities of the individual. It's a thoughtful story which doesn't patronise, as Gilly says, but does insist you think.

(CT) I think the book was trying to get a handle on what it means to be human in the 21st Century, and that also means getting to grips with the problems humans have created in the last two million years, and how we might go about solving them. That sounds ambitious, but humour is an excellent way of making us stop and think about these things.

(LP) Like Gillian, I feel this was the author's point of writing this story. However, he did it in such a quirky and clever way, we don't reallly notice it.  

Have you read any other Matt Haig books? If so, how did this compare?

(GH)  I've read The Radleys a few years back and I have Reasons To Stay Alive on my Kindle. I really like the competent fluidity of his writing, and the fact he's never afraid to push boundaries or write about controversial issues. I like authors that break rules, and I think Matt Haig is a rule breaker!

(JJ) Yes, several. As a writer, Haig has a very vulnerable style, an honesty and openness which doesn't hide behind cynicism or sarcasm. This, perversely, is powerful and affecting. I like his writing and share many of his concerns, so always enjoy his books.

(CT) No, I haven’t. (So many books to read – so little time!)

(LP) No. As Kat says above, so many good books, so little time!

Who should read this book? What readers would it appeal too?

(GH)  Anyone! I think from YA readers to contemporary readers, those who like humour to those who appreciate reading about humanity would enjoy this book. If you don't think you would - why not break the rules and give it a try!

(JJ) The Humans would appeal to anyone from eight upwards. I also think more disaffected readers would enjoy this. It isn't preachy, it breaks a few taboos, it's funny and it's accessible. I'd give it to anyone, confident they'd come away from it with a smile on their face.

(CT) If you’ve enjoyed books like AndrĂ© Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs that use a non-human perspective to make us think about what it means to be human, then this is for you. And if you haven’t read anything like that before, then this is a damn good place to start.

(LP) Anyone with an open mind, willing to look at themselves, and hummankind, realistically.

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