You hear a lot of people talk about an author’s ‘voice’, discussing how it is one of the most important things to get right. In The Humans, Matt Haig’s writerly voice is so good, it’s only after finishing the book that you are aware of how well he nailed it.
Professor Andrew Martin has solved the Riemann hypothesis – it has something to do with prime numbers, apparently – and is summarily exterminated by an alien race who replaces him with one of their own. This ‘alien’ Andrew has a mission: to kill anyone whom Professor Martin has told of his discovery to prevent humankind discovering interstellar travel and screwing the universe the way they have Earth.
Unfortunately for ‘Andrew’, when he becomes corporeal on terra firma, he is standing on a road, stark bollocks naked. He is discovered by the Police and temporarily locked up in a mental hospital where his indoctrination on what being human is all about begins.
At first, ‘Andrew’ finds the human form repulsive and has no problems in fulfilling his mission. But the longer he stays on earth, the more human he becomes leading him to make some dangerous decisions.
I loved this book.
Haig uses short, staccato sentences with no contractions and few adjectives for ‘Andrew’s’ voice. Remember how we learned french at school? “Where is my aunt? My aunt is in the cafe. She is drinking coffee.” This perfectly captures how you would expect someone new to the language (‘Andrew’ learned English from one copy of Cosmipolitan) to speak. As the book progresses, however, and ‘Andrew’ becomes Andrew, the voice changes subtly and becomes more natural: an external clue to the character’s internal transformation.
The book is littered with ‘one liners’ worthy of Douglas Adams. Take this one: “A cow is an Earth-dwelling animal, a domesticated and multi-purpose ungulate, which humans treat as a one-stop shop for food, liquid refreshment, fertiliser and designer footwear.” It could have been lifted straight from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Where I find Terry Pratchett’s forced, smart-arsed comments extremely annoying, Haig’s touch is gentle and carried me along, smiling.
Don’t get me wrong: this is not an off-world, alternate universe science fiction or fantasy. The Humans is very firmly rooted on our own planet with a cast of human beings. Whether or not this includes Andrew Martin, you’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out.
The Humans is an optimistic essay on our species, full of love, wonder, family, dogs and peanut butter sandwiches. And I’m not ashamed to say there was a tear in my eye by the end. Highly recommended.