Archive for October, 2013

Being Human

This month we met up in The Barrels to discuss The Humans by Matt Haig. Amazon describes the book like this:
‘It’s hardest to belong when you’re closest to home . . .
One wet Friday evening, Professor Andrew Martin of Cambridge University solves the world’s greatest mathematical riddle. Then he disappears.
When he is found walking naked along the motorway, Professor Martin seems different. Besides the lack of clothes, he now finds normal life pointless. His loving wife and teenage son seem repulsive to him. In fact, he hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton. And he’s a dog.
Can a bit of Debussy and Emily Dickinson keep him from murder? Can the species which invented cheap white wine and peanut butter sandwiches be all that bad? And what is the warm feeling he gets when he looks into his wife’s eyes?’
It seems that famous writers are queuing up to heap praise on The Humans, including the authors of two previous book group choices, Jeanette Winterson and S.J.Watson. Jeanette Winterson writes, “The Humans is a laugh-and-cry book. Troubling, thrilling, puzzling, believable and impossible. Matt Haig uses words like a tin-opener. We are the tin.” S.J.Watson is equally enamoured, describing it as, “A brilliant exploration of what it is to love, and to be human, The Humans is both heartwarming and hilarious, weird, and utterly wonderful. One of the best books I’ve read in a very long time.”

So, what did Berwick book group readers think? As usual, we were divided. Glynis delivered her opinions in list form, perhaps in response to the list of 97 pieces of ‘Advice for a Human’ in the book.
‘disappointing
predictable
puerile at times
like a slightly amusing comedy sketch dragged out to a six-part series
could hardly be bothered to finish it
Such a shame because I loved The Radleys by the same author.’

Martin found more to like. ‘In the past there were many programs on television showing the quaint and unusual traits of the French, Swedes, Japanese, Australians. Any Johnny Foreigner would do as long as we could look down on or lampoon them. It was very instructive to see the few glimpses we got of what Johnny Foreigner thought of us. This book throws out the national barriers and shows what Johnny Foreigner thinks of the whole human race, and an interesting and amusing fist he makes of it: sometimes even insightful. The Intergallactic policeman has been seen before in many forms and this one was as good as any. However, halfway through, the author opts for one of the oldest chestnuts, going back at least to Greek mythology: gods, heroes, mermaids, even Superman giving up their immortality or super powers for the love of a human. Not quite so credible when one recalls Andrew Martin’s earlier squeamishness about that smelly multi-lobed bag of jelly called Human.
The philosophising about music and poetry never appealed to me and he suggested a happy- ever-after ending. So, in summary, I found half a quite good book that tapered off but not as badly as it may have. Worth a read.’

Jill liked it a great deal – much more than ‘The Radleys’ by the same author. She found it a well-paced read, written in a fluent, flowing style, and she enjoyed following Andrew Martin’s transition from selfish to sympathetic. Although she thought the aforementioned 97 pieces of advice for a human varied from ‘interesting’ to ‘lame’, she did find some of the observations in the book particularly telling. Examples included, ‘Trying to pass for human, he became one’, ‘everything on this planet is hidden’, and ‘the point of love is to help you survive’.

Paula enjoyed the book too, but felt that it was something of a guilty pleasure, especially towards the end when the philosophy(sometimes cod-philosophy) became more prominent, such as the ’97 pieces of advice for a human’ which seems to have been a ‘Marmite’ experience for most of us. However, she pointed out that it is easy to be cynical about the message being put across in The Humans and she was happy to ban her inner cynic on this occasion because she found the book laugh-out-loud funny in places and thought that Haig did a good job of creating a completely rational character who was able to highlight the inconsistencies in human thought and actions. She particularly liked Andrew Martin’s observation that the News programme should be called ‘the war and money show’.

I was with Jill and Paula, in that I was happy to dive in and enjoy The Humans, which I thought was a brave piece of writing. It would be easy to accuse Matt Haig of being trite in places, but he hit the mark for me more often than not, even in the controversial ‘97 pieces of advice’ chapter. I enjoyed his use of the ‘other’ or different narrator, and I was happy to follow Andrew Martin’s journey towards humanity: ‘If you came to earth looking for logical sense you were missing the point’; ‘I had become a human by betraying rationality and obeying feeling’; ‘to recognise beauty, you must experience pain and to know mortality’. It made me think about what it means to be human – and if a book promotes thought, it must be doing something right.
The plot surprised me. I was expecting to discover that Andrew Martin was a human who had experienced a mental breakdown, so it was totally unexpected to be presented with incontrovertible evidence confirming that he was, in fact, from another planet. I found the plot gripping – the suspense builds around whether Andrew will kill his wife and son – and then builds again when the new alien arrives to complete the job.
I thought the emerging portrait of the previous Andrew Martin (a cold and unattractive character) was particularly well done – and the characters of Isobel and Gulliver, Andrew’s wife and son, were beautifully drawn, particularly Gulliver.

Our discussion covered some fascinating ground, seeded by the issues in the book. We debated the nature of genius: was there a male/female divide on the need for absolute privacy to work? Are there different types of genius? Does a genius have to be closed off? Einstein and Richard Feynman apparently didn’t – they were fully interested in/engaged with the world and its inhabitants – as was Andrew Martin by the end of this enjoyable, thought-provoking novel.

Ann Coburn

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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