Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

TL:DR – In between life and death there is the Midnight Library. This place contains all the possible lives you could have lived depending on the choices and actions you take. When Nora Seed finds herself in this state of limbo, she is confronted by the infinite books detailing paths she could have taken. What will she learn about herself, and will she discover life is worth living regardless of what it throws at her?

Summary (warning: spoiler)

At the age of 16, Nora Seed had many interests; swimming, glaciology, music, cats/dogs, philosophy, boys, finding love, books and chess to name a few. Living in Bedford, UK, she had dreams and pathways unexplored before her.

At the age of 35, she decides to end her life.

Nora then finds herself in a library, but this is no normal library for it does not appear to have a beginning or end. There she meets Mrs Elm the librarian; the same librarian she had in high school when she was 16 years old. Nora asks Mrs Elm if she is dead, and the librarian replies, ‘Not exactly.’

‘Between life and death there is a library,’ she explains. ‘And within that library the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?’

Nora’s exploration into the multiverse of alternate lives she could have lived leads to a transformation. Will the other lives she could have lived amplify the regrets in her root life and reinforce her desire to die? Or will they somehow give her the courage to own her root life and live it?

Review

The Midnight Library is a marvellous read from author Matt Haig. The story’s greatest strength is Haig’s ability to capture the existential crisis experienced by Nora. Her decision to take her own life in the opening chapters is portrayed not only in a believable and sensitive fashion but also with minimal text. This is quite a feat as the mental state of Nora is key to understanding how she ends up in the library.

What is also impressive is how Haig shows Nora’s depression is not necessarily the product of her choices, circumstances and actions, but the perception of all three. He is not heavy-handed in his delivery, which makes it all the more relatable. Nora could have been addicted to drugs (she is on anti-depressants but nothing else), or an alcoholic, or in an abusive relationship and thus explain her desire to commit suicide. Instead, she is simply a person struggling with life, and it is her perception that drives her to the decision to end her life.

Somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind and soul, she understands that it is impossible to live a life that is perpetually happy. She understands that suffering and sadness are also part of life. Instead, there are two key points that drive her to despair. A despair so deep that she can’t bear living any more.

The first point is her perception of regrets. Not just the quantity, but her inability to ponder her future when she focuses so intensely on the past. Past choices that lead to regrets that she sees is a pattern of self-destructive behaviour.

The second point is after a series of events, she believes that no one needs her. That the world would not miss her. That those who are her family and friends would not notice if she simply disappeared.

This is the true spiral that a person contemplating suicide undertakes. Drugs, alcohol and violence can amplify this, but they are not essential. In the end, it is the mind that perceives and convinces the person that there is nothing but despair and suffering, so why go on living?

The bulk of the book then explores other lives Nora could have lived. And from these experiences she realises that in life, along with joy and sadness going hand-in-hand, our regrets do not define who we are, and that owning our choices whether they turn out to be good or bad are critical to living a healthy and fulfilling life.

Traversing the multiverse results in a range of highs and lows. At one point, Nora gets lost in the woods and can’t see the forest for the trees. Her own identity perched on the precipice of not knowing what she wants/needs and who she is. When finally she discovers a life that achieves a balance between the challenges and serenity, she believes she has found the life for her. But it’s not her (root) life, so when she returns to the library against her protests and the library begins to crumble around her, the state of ‘in-between’ comes to ahead and Nora must decide. Life or death?

Beautifully written, evocative, page-turning, and with a powerful message of hope.

5 out of 5

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