Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Humans, by Matt Haig

Being a human is a bit depressing at times. You think about the horrible things that people do to each other, the damage we do to the planet, the selfish things we do to to people that are less fortunate, less powerful, more impressionable in order to line our own pockets. Wars, assassinations, sexism, the entire Media industry, screw-overs, manipulations, divorces: the list goes on.

This book makes you remember that for all the messes that the human race have made, for every good intention that litters the way to hell and for every almighty cock-up that has ever befallen the species: we're not that bad. Actually, parts of what make us so utterly crap are actually what make us amazing and that we are just a crazy mess of brainwaves, unfathomable emotions and 
contradictions.  In the words of John Steinbeck "What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness"

The Humans, then. Professor Andrew Martin of Cambridge University has just worked out the pattern behind prime numbers and thus discovered the key that will unlock the secrets of the universe and pave the way for unlimited, unimaginable technological advancement, an end to pain and an end to death. The Vonnadorians, a super-advanced alien race many lightyears away, worshipers of the prime number and followers of the religion of mathematics doubt the ability of the human race to
cope with this discovery. As far as they are aware, humans are a primitive species and all they are capable of creating is war, violence and disease. They could not possibly handle such advancement. It would simply destroy them. In order to prevent such disaster, the Vonnadorians dispatch a kind of bounty hunter clone to Earth, under instruction to infiltrate the Martin household, dispatch any humans that might have heard of the mathematical breakthrough and erase any evidence that might be found.

The book opens with this bounty hunter clone overshooting his intended destination (the Professor's study) by a modest margin and accidentally emerging from his space travel on a motorway, where he is promptly hit by a car.  Not to worry though, regenerative properties appear to be standard issue.  The first step on a journey to understanding humans is appreciating the necessity of clothing.  The old Prof. Martin, luckily enough, was just the uptight workaholic type that might have some sort of psychological breakdown and end up roaming a world class university in the nude.  So that particular clotheless caper goes not unnoticed, but accepted  with understanding sympathy.

The first half of the novel is full of this bemused alien immersing himself in the weirdness of life on Earth and trying not to gag at the sight of the fleshy, disturbingly decaying lifeforms that inhabit it. Family dynamics, the concept of saying one thing and meaning another, the news (Or the War and Money show, as he thinks it should be called), dogs, football, alcohol and hangovers and the rules of marriage, when combined, represent something of a steep learning trajectory.  His wife and son notice little difference.  Infact, post naked-breakdown Andrew Martin seems to be a bit easier to live with- an improvement.  He puts his used pots in the dishwasher, he watches TV with his family and lets his son join a band.  He even tries his hand an profanity and smoking, much to his son's bafflement.  As the story goes on, the narrator starts to see what it is about the human race that makes it worth saving. He begins to question the mission he's been sent on- not the not being able to cope with the advancement, that goes without saying- but the destruction of his new family whom he has begun to feel quite attached to, despite his initial reservations.

I love the author's ability to capture the awkward misery and the glowing contentment that makes up the up-and-down marathon that is family life.  The characters themselves, their behavior and quirks and the relationships between them were so brilliantly realised, beautifully written and utterly believable, various parts of every character will resonate with every reader. I said in my thoughts about The Radleys that Haig obviously has a knack for breathing life into dysfunctional families that could otherwise end up being somewhat stereotypical and eye for brilliantly describing the mundane parts of life in ways that are alternately hilarious and a bit grim.  I felt that The Humans was all the excellent writing and characterisation of The Radleys, but with a much, much better story and more fuzzy-feeling satisfaction for your money.

I absolutely loved this book; it's warm, properly funny, infinitely quotable and I think it's going to be a future classic. I'm thrilled that so many people are going to receive it for World Book Night.  The impossible brilliance of the human race needs to be seen through fresh eyes every so often, as our own are a bit prone to seeing only the worst side of life. It makes you remember how precious and fleeting the gift of life is. Sometimes it's brutal and unfair and sometimes it doesn't look like it's worth it.  But this book makes you remember that sometimes it's just the simple things, like being able to appreciate a peanut butter sandwich and have somebody care if you get beaten up, loving someone and caring for people that make being human worth all the hassle.

Would recommend to anybody that was freaked out by The Body Snatchers, humourless mathematicians and anybody that ever feels a bit mopey about humanity.  Also, people who were fans of the terrifying "Not Now Bernard" as kids.

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