When I first heard about Reasons to Stay Alive, I was a complete newcomer to the Matt Haig catalogue. But the story of why the book was written grabbed my attention. Here was a man who, in his early twenties, had sunk to the very depths of depression and come as close to suicide as you can get without actually attempting it. And here he was, some sixteen years later, not only still alive but also able to write about and share his experiences of an illness that so many keep to themselves. It sounded like an important and brave piece of work.
I decided to pick up his latest novel. At the time, that was The Humans, a book which has been praised to the hilt since it was first published in 2013. There was a time when you couldn’t go on Twitter without seeing somebody extolling the virtues of this short work of fiction about an alien who comes to live among us, disguised as a university professor. All of these tweets led me to believe that I would love this book. But I didn’t.
Instead, it kind of annoyed me. I found that when attempting to be profound about the meaning of life, it ended up being a little condescending. When trying to show the absurdity of humanity, it was occasionally insulting. There was the odd section, in which Haig seemed to be writing his own experiences of depression into the professor’s son, that something deeper emerged and I got a sense of the novel’s real intentions. But it did, unfortunately, fall short of the mark for me.
So what did this mean for Reasons to Stay Alive? Would I find the same issues? Would a book that could mean so much to so many people and possibly even make some see a light at the end of the tunnel actually turn out to be a disappointment?
Well, the short answer is no. There’s something in Reasons to Stay Alive that never fully surfaced in The Humans. And that something was a refreshing honesty. If Haig’s novel is his attempt to bring his illness to the page, then his latest work of non-fiction is the successful culmination of that aim.
Because Reasons to Stay Alive is, quite simply, brilliant. The first half does the most important thing that any book on depression could ever do. It makes anyone to who the symptoms seem familiar know that they are not the only ones who have suffered (or are suffering) from them, and it does so with sympathy, humour, and statistics that show just how common an illness it is. It also tells a gripping story about the author, whose depression was sudden and total. And it makes you see how impressive his recovery has been.
Any Cop?: Matt Haig may never be my favourite writer. But whatever I thought of The Humans, it’s difficult to feel anything but admiration for the man who wrote Reasons to Stay Alive. Depression, particularly in young men, is still a stigmatised subject that needs to be addressed more often and more effectively. Haig does that with aplomb.