REVIEW: Jennifer Crocker
Professor Andrew Martin is not who people think he is, and no, this is not a midlife existential crisis novel. The reason Andrew Martin is not who people think he is is because the human mathematical genius has just solved one of the most important mathematical problems of all time. The reason he is dead is because a group of aliens from the planet Vonnadoria don’t want the hypothesis in human hands. So a substitution takes place.
The only problem for the imposter Cambridge professor is that he really knows nothing about being human. Wearing clothes, for instance, and a number of other things that puzzle and baffle him. He has come to earth prepared to despise humans for a greater cause, but then things start going strangely awry. Martin has a wife Isobel and a rather surly son, who hasn’t ever had much of a relationship with his actual father. So, the family is somewhat puzzled by the new Andrew’s behaviour.
Matt Haig has written a book that the late Douglas Adams would be proud of, without making it in any way derivative of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is not about funny aliens, it is about ones who are very determined that anyone who knows about Andrew’s solving of the hypothesis must die. The Vonnadorians are not evil, they’re just doing a job.
But, Andrew is slowly taught, hilariously at first, through reading Cosmopolitan magazine, about what being a human is all about. And what he finds makes his mission near impossible. Because he is meant to kill his family and he finds that he is advocating with his controllers on Vonnadoria to see that humans are not all bad. They don’t buy his excuses and this leads to a tense moment towards the end of the book which will have you on the edge of your seat, or clinging to your mattress as you wait to see who will win.
I found the book deeply moving and funny at the same time.The choices that Andrew will have to make are poignant ones, to risk being beyond immortal for the sake of being human, and to risk losing the family he thinks he might want if he acts on his instructions.
Along the way it is also a story about our human failings in relationships, how we put work before family, and fame before the common day things in life that make it bearable.
One of the shout-outs on the cover is that the book is a mixture of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tavis. It is nothing like either of them. I gulped down The Humans in one stretch of reading, and have only one gripe: that the ending rather gilded the lily.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014