Edith Piaf regretted nothing. Matt Haig’s protagonist regrets everything. All her missed opportunities, all the decisions not made and the paths not taken.
Nora Seed’s life once held so much promise. She could have been an Olympic swimmer or toured the world with a rock band. She might have been a glaciologist. She could have gone to live in Australia with her best friend or gone to run a cosy English village pub with her husband.
Instead she is at rock bottom. She’s lost her job at a music shop, her only client for piano lessons has decided he’s more interested in football, she’s estranged from her brother and her cat has died. She has nothing – and no-one – to live for.
Every move had been a mistake, every decision a disaster, every day a retreat from who she’d imagined she’d be.
Suicide, she decides, is the only way to escape the misery of a life full of regrets. But on the brink of death she is transported to The Midnight Library, where every book acts as a gateway to the past. They give her the chance to try out all those alternative lives; to see how things would be different now if she had made other choices then.
As Mrs Elms, librarian at this mysterious place tells Nora:
Doing one thing differently is often the same as doing everything differently. This is your opportunity to see how things could be.
And so new versions of Nora are created. The one where she does win an Olympic medal, another where she does get to Australia and a third in which she is conducting scientific experiments in the Arctic ice fields. In one incarnation she marries the fiancé she had, in her real life, ditched two weeks before her wedding; in another she is a Cambridge don married to a surgeon.
Are any of these other lives better than her current existence? To answer the question, Nora has to consider what truly matters and what would make her life worth living. Is it fame? Or friendship or perhaps love?
The Midnight Library has a lot going for it.
It features a library and a helpful librarian for one thing (always a plus for us bibliophiles). The contents of the Midnight Library are not however your usual material:
The books were all green. Greens of multifarious shades. Some of these volumes were a murky swamp-green, some a bright and light chartreuse, some a bold emerald and others the verdant shade of summer lawns … There were no titles of author names adoring the spines. Aside from the difference of shade the only other variation was size; the books were of similar height but varied in width
And it articulates well the desperation of someone in the throes of a breakdown. Matt Haig has faced depression in his own life so is more than qualified to show what Nora Seed experiences as she sits alone in her flat, scrolling through other people’s happy lives and comparing them with her own empty existence. She has, she says in her farewell note, only herself to blame. She had chances but blew everyone of them.
What Nora discovers is that no life is perfect however much it might look that way from afar; each life brings with it a degree of disillusionment and pain. Yet the over-arching message of the book is positive, that there is a way to climb out of the black hole and embrace the joy of life.
I also enjoyed some of the philosophical digressions, the explanations of quantum physics and string theory. I even grasped the concept of Schrödinger’s cat (Haig’s explanation is much clearer than that given in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being).
And yet I didn’t fully engage with this book. I felt sympathetic towards Nora initially. Haven’t we all had times when we’ve regretted a decision or thought “what if…” . But as the novel progresses, the enlightenment she gains from each incarnation began to feel repetitive.
I can see how this book would appeal to many readers who wouldn’t see it as whimsical as I did. I can also see how reading The Midnight Library could be helpful to people experiencing the same feelings of futility as Nora does.
Maybe they would also relate better than I could to the life-affirming statements in the final chapter. They’re the kind of statements with which it’s hard to disagree and if they were words of advice being given to me in a face-to-face counselling session I could probably buy into them. But when they’re in black and white, such statements always feel trite to me. That’s not Matt Haig’s fault, its mine.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: Endnotes
The Midnight Library is published by Canongate on 13 August 2020. My copy was provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review/
Matt Haig is the author of the bestselling memoir Reasons to Stay Alive in which he described how, when he was 24 years old, he could see no way to go on living. This is his story of how he came through his crisis and learned to enjoy life.