Book reviews, musings and waffle from a British lit addict

Review: ‘The Humans’ by Matt Haig

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
When an extra-terrestrial visitor arrives on Earth, his first impressions of the human species are less than positive. Taking the form of Professor Andrew Martin, a leading mathematician at Cambridge University, the visitor wants to complete his task and go back home, to the planet he comes from and a utopian society of immortality and infinite knowledge.
He is disgusted by the way humans look, what they eat, the wars they witness on the news and totally baffled by such concepts of love and family. But as time goes on, he starts to realise there may be more to this weird species than he has been led to believe
Review
This book, this actual book, is set right here, on Earth. It is about the meaning of life and nothing at all. It is about what it takes to kill somebody and save them. It is about love and dead poets and peanut butter. It’s about matter and anti-matter, everything and nothing, hope and hate. It’s about a forty-one year old female historian called Isobel and her fifteen year old son called Gulliver and the cleverest mathematician in the world. It is, in short, about how to become a human” [Page 13 of eARC]
This will be another of those nearly impossible reviews to write and I’m so tempted just to fill a page with all of the quotes that I scribbled down while I was reading it. I don’t remember the last time that I read a book that was so quotable or at which I was more grateful for the highlight feature on my eReader. The bottom line is obvious if you even half communicated with me when I got back from my holiday earlier in the year or read my responses to the End of 2013 Book Survey: I completely and utterly fell for The Humans in all of its gut-wrenching glory. Telling you why you’ll love it in a way that doesn’t include an excessive volume of exclamation marks will be difficult.
On the face of it, this is a quirky science-fiction story of an alien who has come to Earth for a specific (somewhat malevolent) purpose, taken up residence in the body of a human and is settling down to wreak some havoc. There are the inevitable “alien observing humans” chapters to kick things off but with The Humans, it didn’t feel awkward or as though it was trying too hard to be funny. Reading the first few chapters was like listening to a really good observational comedian making jibes at how hilarious humans would look to an outsider. Books that have me cracking a smile are relatively frequent but actual laughter is less easy to come by; The Humans had me chuckling on the train, on the plane and wherever I happened to be when I was reading.
The race that the narrator comes prizes knowledge above all else and believe that emotions do nothing but get in the way so, for all of the entertaining anecdotes, there are plenty of poignant moments as “Andrew” learns more about his adopted family that turn this book from something entertaining into something really kind of special. The relationship that develops between “Andrew” and Isobel is lovely to read about, particularly given how far apart her and Andrew have grown and how sceptical she is of his apparent return to being interested in his family and the world and people around him. It was his strained and fragile fledgling relationship with Gulliver that I really loved, though. I think teenage boys are widely regarded as slightly incomprehensible generally and reading about “Andrew” getting to grips with being a father to a surly young person that has spent his youth being ignored and failing to live up to the standards set by his genius parent was just one of the best bits of the whole great book.
There are a few abstract chapters with various reflections on different perceptions on being human throughout but the later parts of the book do have a little more action. I obviously won’t say why or how or what happens but there’s a little more of a science fiction edge as the story progresses. Not in a way that is too much or doesn’t fit with the earlier tone (which I’ve found can be a problem with some science fiction when the ground work is deemed done) but in a way that is sympathetic to the characters, develops subtly and is very well judged.
If you don’t get at least a tear in your eye during the chapter ‘Advice for humans’, your heart is made of stone and I am worried about you emotionally. I received an eBook review copy and will, without a shadow of a doubt, be buying my own copy one of these days. It was easily one of my favourites of 2013. As it is, all I have at the moment are the scraps of quotes that I scribbled out in my notebook to remind me of how truly wonderful this book really is…
She said being human is being a young child on Christmas day who receives an absolutely magnificent castle. And then there is a perfect photograph of this castle on the box and you want more than anything to play with the castle and the knights and the princesses because it looks like such a perfectly human world, but the only problem is that the castle isn’t built. It’s in tiny intricate pieces and, although there’s a book of instructions, you don’t understand it. And nor can your parents or Aunt Sylvie. So you are just left, crying at the ideal castle on the box which no one would ever be able to build” [Page 241 of eARC]
Overall: If you’re ever feeling a bit blue or like the human race generally is going to pot, please, PLEASE read The Humans. It’s genuinely funny, so well observed and the ending is perfect and I can’t imagine anything better for cheering you up on a miserable day or just making you feel a little bit better about being a human at the start of the new year.
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Date finished: 22 August 2013
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thank you very much indeed, Canongate Books!
Genre: Science fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Canongate Books in January 2013