Review of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Each life Nora tries on changes her in some way, whether by erasing her regrets about a path not taken, showing her that she's capable of bravery and discovery or commitment, or by emphasizing that the flip side of joy in any life will always be sadness.
Humans are fundamentally limited, generalising creatures, living on auto-pilot, who straighten out curved streets in their minds, which explains why they get lost all the time.
Nora Seed feels like she can't go on. Life is too much, there's no hope for anything better, and her future contains nothing more for her. Her despair leads her to try to end her life.
But she finds herself transported to an in-between state that is not life and not death, in the form of a library that exists outside of time and holds shelves full of the "books" of all of her possible lives, from that frozen moment (midnight) forward. Each possibility of a present and future is built upon different combinations of decisions Nora could have made in her life in the past. Some lives are notable, others comfortable, and still others are full of pain.
"The thing you have to remember is that this is an opportunity
and it is rare and we can undo any mistake we made,
live any life we want. Any life. Dream big... You can be anything
you want to be. Because in one life, you are."
A trusted figure from her childhood serves as her guide to the library, advising her to review her Book of Regrets and plunge into alternate lives to see if a different set of circumstances might fit--and might save Nora from ending it all.
There's a lot to unpack from within Haig's fascinating premise. He explores shifting realities and asks how much of a person's happiness and life course is determined by circumstance, by choice, and by chance--as well as how much of what makes someone who they are is inherent and how much is shaped by the web of decisions that make up a life.
Maybe there was no perfect life for her,
but somewhere, surely, there was a life worth living.
Nora dips in and out of different lives, trying on careers, love lives, travel adventures, fame and fortune, and a settled family life. But not having experienced and remembered each moment that led to her various life options--which she joins in medias res-- keeps Nora at a distance from them. Her mind begins to fill in gaps to help her exist in that life, or to help her find her way around a new town, or to understand how she ended up where she finds herself, yet she's altogether missed her own decision-making, private jokes, clarifying moments, sadness, and joys that made her that person in that life with those people on that path. She enters each journey in progress, leaping into an existence without having built any of it, and she revels in the possibilities while also feeling empty because she didn't lay the foundation.
“The trouble was that eventually Nora began to lose
any sense of who she was. Like a whispered word
passed around from ear to ear, even her name
began to sound like just a noise, signifying nothing.”
Yet each life Nora tries on changes her in some way, whether by erasing her regrets about a path not taken, showing her that she's capable of bravery and discovery or commitment, or by emphasizing the ups and downs of any life--in one life she might have an exciting career, but she may have devastatingly lost a loved one. She may find a path in a cozy life, but without a deep romantic love. Her rock-star self may seem impressive, but that Nora also seems despondent.
Nora begins to understand that none of these situations is perfect, and that the flip side of joy for anyone in any life will always be sadness. It may very well feel like oversimplifying for those familiar with mental illness to watch the character of Nora, who in her original life is experiencing crushing emotional turmoil, be able to "learn" herself out of despair. But I was taken by her journey of discovery leading to the realization that sad times make joyful moments all the sweeter. I also particularly enjoyed Haig's exploration into the impacts Nora had on those around her--who was alive and thriving in certain life threads because of Nora's care or attention, and who was missing from another life thread, seemingly because she hadn't taken time with them. No pressure, Nora, but everyone is depending on you!
Haig presents a captivating hook, and I enjoyed his storytelling. The setup keeps Nora at a distance from her possible lives and thereby keeps the reader at a distance from Nora. This meant that I didn't feel emotionally invested in Nora's story although I appreciated the implications of her experiences and was very interested in what would happen. The ending isn't unexpected, but it does feel hard-fought and satisfying.
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
Haig is also the author of How to Stop Time, his memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, and other books. I read The Midnight Library at the same time my mom did; as part of an online book club for March; and in preparation for my in-person book club. Trifecta!
If you like books that play with time and alternate realities, you might also like the books on the Greedy Reading List Six Riveting Time-Travel Escapes.
I mentioned this book (along with Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack and The Arsonists' City) in Three Books I'm Reading Now, 3/3/21 Edition.