I found this lovely little book whilst on holiday in Dawlish earlier this year (for £1.50! Result!) I’ve read a few things by Matt Haig (see here for a review of Reasons to Stay Alive) and have really empathised with his non-fiction writing, so I was excited to see what this book was about. After reading it, I can confirm that empathetic self help sci-fi is a thing, and Matt Haig has totally cornered the market. Oh, and that it’s pretty good.
The Humans begins with a classic science fiction setup – an alien arrives on earth in the body of a human man and proceeds to take over his life. All the classic tropes are there – the car headlights, the nakedness, the jarring impact of being run over but miraculously healing yourself. So far so repetitive rip-off. But what happens next is a sweet, funny, achingly self-aware look at what it means to be a human in the 21st century. Which is odd for a story about an alien assassin, but there you go.
Written in a familiar tone, the novel focuses on the life of Andrew Martin, an Oxford professor with a wife (Isobel) and child (Gulliver) and dog (Newton). Andrew is extraordinarily focused on his career (to the detriment of his family) and is poised to announce a groundbreaking advance in mathmatics. Unfortunately, the aliens monitoring our planet aren’t happy about us mere Earthlings taking such a dramatic step forwards and send an unnamed alien assassin to inhabit Andrew’s body and to kill anyone who knows too much about his discovery. However, once alien Andrew begins to learn about life on Earth, things get complicated. Emotions get involved. And that’s where the problems start…
I loved the way that an alien being was used as a device to highlight the ridiculousness of being a human. It was often self-referrential in a gently mocking way, such as when alien Andrew learns that humans often do things that they think will make them happy that actually make them miserable, such as writing a semi-autobiographical novel. Because alien Andrew is, obviously, not from round here, he questions ‘normal’ behaviour and his stark comparisons and lack of understanding of basic social norms are often brilliantly observed, right down to tiny details. I loved how these funny little observations were littered throughout the text and found myself chuckling out loud on several occasions (not a good look). I’d heard this book being described as similar to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and I can completely see why – despite being very different subject matter there’s a reflection of human behaviour which, when seen through another’s eyes, shows how utterly baffling and contradictory people can be.
Having read Matt Haig before I know that he’s suffered from depression and anxiety and so the description of Gulliver’s mental state felt completely authentic. I really liked how there was no specific reason for him to feel so low and I thought that the reaction of his parents was very realistic. In fact, the way that all of the characters related to each other was by far and away the best thing about this book. It showed how complicated and messy family dynamics can be, how love can be evidenced in many different forms and that whilst forgiveness may not be easy, it’s always a possibility.
The only thing that I didn’t really like about the book was the lack of pace and direction. Often, the story would meander along and although it was very sweet and funny, not a lot would be happening. I did get bored in places and had to have a little reading break, but the short chapters did help and the story always pulled me back in eventually.
In saying that, I LOVED the part towards the end where alien Andrew detailed all the advice that he would give his son based on what he had learnt about humanity. It was clever and funny and would be brilliant to refer back to if you need to make a speach at a wedding. Just a great piece of writing, even out of the context of the book.
I really enjoyed The Humans, despite it not being anything like I expected it to be. I very much enjoyed the quirky writing style and the gentle way in which human behaviour was mocked. There were some big, dark themes dealt with in a very honest and realistic fashion and their portrayal and the advice given was brilliantly written. Despite occasionally lacking in direction, the warmth and humour shone through to make a really lovely read. Recommended for anyone who wants the equivalent of a literary hug.
Overall rating: 4/5
Not at all what I expected, but I really enjoyed the originality and humour.
Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #21 Read a book from a non-human perspective.