Going down the depressive abyss is like entering a cave. The light at the end of the tunnel won’t find you. You have to crawl blindly, in the hope of finding the light at some point. The hopelessness a person in depression feels is rather alien to others around them. Hardly anyone notices if another is depressed, let alone understand what it truly means. Matt Haig captures this hardship, this sense of alienation, and the ultimate light at the end of the tunnel in the novel The Humans.
The story begins with a ‘Vonnadorian’ alien narrator explaining how he came to find himself—stark naked on the M11 motorway—in the body of Professor Andrew Martin, a mathematician at Cambridge University. The real Professor Martin discovers the secret of prime numbers, which can potentially unlock the mysteries of the universe. The Vonnadorians on the other side of the universe are alerted by this amazing breakthrough, and promptly send one of their agents to eliminate Martin and erase all traces of his discovery.
The arrival of the alien in Martin’s body makes for several hilarious moments. The Vonnadorian is baffled by humans, who he believes are too emotional and irrational. Fitting into the human society can be quite tricky when you’re a wrinkly-skinned alien trying to be a 40-year old father and husband. But except for the dog, nobody in Professor Martin’s family notices that something is off. They believe he’s still the same old Andrew who’s aloof from his family and only ever cares about his career.
What’s interesting about this detail in the story is that this is normally how depression goes unnoticed. Many don’t realise how alienated a depressed person feels from family and friends, from life itself. Animals, on the other hand, have a penchant for picking up on human emotions and offering comfort before we, humans, can even realise something is off.
Initially, the alien-Andrew attempts to be a human without really giving in to human emotions. But what unfolds in the process is an improved version of Andrew, one who cares for his wife and teenage son. The alien who strongly believed that humans are not worthy of living, gradually grows to love his human family and even goes to extreme lengths to protect them. The real Professor Martin might be no more, but the alien version gradually grows into a new and loving Professor Andrew Martin. This, too, is reminiscent of a person who has managed to bounce back from severe depression, someone who values and cares for loved ones—and others—more than ever before.
Throughout the story, the author’s thoughts resound in the alien’s observations on humans, making for sharp truths. Having undergone major depressive phase himself, Haig has captured the pain of the condition intimately, even as he personifies it as an alien. And he does so with a sense of wry humour. Take this for instance: “Humans (…) don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead.” The dark times from the author’s life reflect in the observations the Vonnadorian narrator makes in the story. However, as the story progresses, the alien observes and adores all the innate goodness mankind embodies. So, The Humans is both a gentle satire of the often irrational behaviour of humans, and a heartfelt appreciation of their loving and caring nature.