One of my daughter’s favourite programmes from the noughties was My Parents are Aliens which ran on Children’s ITV from 1999-2006. In it a pair of marooned Valuxians morph into humans and adopt three orphaned children in an attempt to fit in, and experience many funny things as they learn what it is to be human. It was surreal, a bit subversive, yet sentimental when needed, and there was always a moral human punchline. It was great children’s TV, and I found it fun too (until endless repeats dulled things for me). The versatile actor Tony Gardner was superb as Brian, and I couldn’t help thinking of him as I read Matt Haig’s new novel…
Professor Andrew Martin is a famous mathematician at Cambridge, and one night he solves the Riemann hypothesis – the greatest remaining riddle of prime numbers, and promptly disappears. He is found wandering naked and confused – and different. Everyone puts this down to a mental breakdown after working too hard. His amnesia means he doesn’t recognise his wife Imogen, his son Gulliver, or Newton their dog.
Andrew knows differently for he is a Vonnadorian. He has taken over the body of the Professor and his purpose is to make sure that his proof of the Riemann hypothesis never sees daylight, for it will lead to the destruction of the universe. This rather sinister motive adds a real dramatic drive to the novel, which contrasts and indeed will conflict with our erstwhile alien’s experiences at getting to know his family again.
The novel is written / narrated by the Professor as a guide to being a human and is full of insights into the human condition. In the following extract, he reflects on being hospitalised in the psych wing after finally being aprehended, naked, on the lawns of Corpus Christi college…
Humans, as a rule, don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead. But the definition of mad, on Earth, seems to be very unclear and inconsistent. What is perfectly sane in one era turns out to be insane in another. The earliest humans walked around naked with no problem. Certain humans, in humid rainforests mainly, still do so. So, we must conclude that madness is sometimes a question of time, and sometimes of postcode.
Basically, the key rule is, if you want to appear sane on Earth you have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, and only stepping on the right kind of grass.
What is charming about the novel is seeing how he starts to build a new relationship with his wife, son and dog. It’s not all plain-sailing though, apart from having to get used to looking at humans, it soon becomes clear that all was not right in the Martin family. Fifteen year old Gulliver is alienated from him, and gets bullied as a result of his father’s new notoriety after the naked incident. Imogen although a good historian and author in her own right, has put her own life in second place for so many years, as the Professor’s single-minded pursuit of mathematics takes precedence.
‘You’re out of bed,’ said Isobel.
‘Yes,’ I said. To be a human is to state the obvious. Repeatedly, over and over, until the end of time.
‘Recovering’ at home, the Professor finds himself listening to music he’d never considered before, and reading poetry – particularly Emily Dickinson. These provoke an emotional response in him that the previous him would never have recognised. He also begins to get a life outside mathematics, to become human. They go to the theatre and later discuss all the death in Hamlet …
‘Are you scared of death?’
She looked awkward. ‘Of course, I’m scared to death of death. I’m a lapsed Catholic. Death and guilt. That’s all I have.’ Catholicism, I discovered, was a type of Christianity for humans who like gold leaf, Latin and guilt.
This all makes it sounds very light-hearted and indeed there is much to chuckle about in this novel, however, it does have a very dark underside. This bittersweet tragicomedy will also bring a tear to your eye and a fervent desire for a satisfying ending.
As he proved in his novel The Last Family in England, (which I adored just pre-blog) which told of a family’s disintegration from the point of view of their dog, Haig is very good at making you laugh one minute, cry the next. There is depth to his characters, yet he can make you look at them with wide-eyed innocence. I’m a big fan, and I now want to go and read some Emily Dickinson too.
I can’t really do this lovely novel justice in a review. I would urge you to read The Humans and hope that you’ll love it as much as I did. (10/10)
* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Humans by Matt Haig, Canongate Hardback, May 2013, 309 pages.
Title quote from Starman by David Bowie
P.S. Note to the publisher: I wish you hadn’t put the roundel with The Radleys TV Book Club winner on the hardback cover – it spoils it. Also two major typos – p4: Holst not Holtz, and p100: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, or Bernstein’s recording of…