Matt Haig’s The Humans is the second of his novels that I have read, the first being The Radleys, about a family of suburban vampires. The Humans has a similarly mundane setting, largely set around a family in Cambridge, the father of which is an eminent professor of mathematics at the university. Yet from the outset, we know that this is no mundane story.
Professor Andrew Martin has just solved the greatest mathematical problem in the world. The next time anyone sees him, he is wandering aroung naked and doesn’t seem to be quite himself. He is no longer Andrew Martin, but is an alien come to suppress the knowledge of his breakthrough. Humans, however, aren’t quite as primitive and two-dimensional as he expected.
The Humans is written entirely from the point of view of the unnamed alien, without even an introduction from the real Andrew Martin before he disappears. It is presented as an explanation of the alien’s actions, and also as a treatise on the complexities of the human race, with its audience being a vastly superior race.
Martin does a remarkable job of writing as a being who understands nothing about humans or Earth. For someone who is (presumably!) human himself, he manages to write as a character for whom everything is new. The substitute Andrew Martin does not understand cars, buildings that do not move, money, religion – nothing he finds on Earth makes any sense to him. There are no slip-ups, no knowledge on the part of the narrator that he shouldn’t have. This is the real triumph of the novel, this complete immersion in a character who is completely new to human culture, law, language and physiology.
Yet this is not the only strength of The Humans. The story which unfolds following the alien’s arrival is gripping and moving, and at times hilarious – mainly due to his complete incomprehension of what is going on around him. It is easy to read and quite fun, yet also thought-provoking – it makes the reader contemplate mortality and human nature. The characters are all believable, even the alien, yet sometimes I felt we didn’t get quite enough insight into them, Andrew’s wife Isobel being a prime example. On the other hand however, it would be hard to give more insight when the narrator has none himself, at least to begin with.
The Humans is an ideal holiday read for me, and I enjoyed it over a relaxed weekend following a busy week at work. It is amusing and easy to read, yet with enough depth to be removed from the usual thoughtless novels which are usually associated with the term “holiday read”. There is darkness and light in the novel, humour, emotion and excitement. If you’re looking for an undemanding read this summer, yet still want a well-written and quality work, then look no further – The Humans will fit the bill nicely.
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