The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Published by Clara on

The Midnight Library by journalist and mental health advocate Matt Haig is a thought-provoking page-turner for these uncertain times. With its short chapters, I would recommend this book to anyone finding it difficult to concentrate right now or those who want to read more but struggle to find the time.

The midnight library on a bookshelf

Synopsis

Thirty-something Nora Seed finds herself in the Midnight Library – a sort of holding area between life and death – following a life of sadness and regret. In the Midnight Library, Nora gets the opportunity to try out all sorts of different lives to see what could have been if she had chosen different paths. If she’s enjoying a particular life, she will remain there, but as soon as the slightest ounce of disappointment sets in, she will return to the library.

Guided by her old school librarian, Mrs Elm, we see Nora move to Australia with her best friend, become an Olympic swimmer, and achieve fame as the lead singer of a rock band. We also see her live out more simple lives, from working at a local dog shelter to becoming a mother.

“As she spoke, Mrs Elm’s eyes came alive, twinkling like puddles in the moonlight. ‘Between life and death there is a library,’ she said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on forever. 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?’”

Matt hAIG

Review

The Midnight Library is about letting go of regrets, but it also about hope and making the most of second chances. Despite the heavy subject matter, the story is surprisingly uplifting, and I was left with a sense of renewed hope and optimism for the future.

One of my favourite chapters – and perhaps my favourite of all Nora’s lives – was about her working as a glaciologist in the Arctic ocean. Unlike her other lives, this life runs for several chapters reflecting how much she, too, must have been enjoying this path.

Amusingly, this life only ended when Nora had disappointing sex with her crewmate and fellow ‘slider’ Hugo. ‘Slider’ is the name Hugo gives to people who have been suspended between life and death for some time, and it’s in this chapter that we learn there are other ‘sliders’, who all arrive in different places – from libraries to video stores to art galleries and even restaurants.

“Hugo, she concluded, was a strange person. For a man who had been so intimate and deep in his conversation, he was very detached from the moment. Maybe if you had lived as many lives as he had, the only person you really had any kind of inanimate relationship with was yourself. She felt like she might not have been there at all. And in a few moments, she wasn’t.”

MATT HAIG

As the story develops, so do Nora’s thoughts and feeling about her life. Much of the first half of the book is about Nora trying to find a life that’s better than her root life; she even maintains (after trying out several of her lives) that she still wants to die. ‘Every possible life I could live has me in it,’ she said.

As Nora learns more about The Midnight Library, her attitude towards death begins to change. We see her come face to face with a polar bear and when Mrs Elm tells her there’s no way back home if she dies in another life, Nora remarks ‘that’s not fair!’. The book builds on this changing feeling, culminating in a social media post written by Nora entitled ‘A thing I have learned (written by a nobody who has been an everybody)‘.

Haig’s writing is beautiful, clear and elegant. Not only do his short chapters make his words more poignant, but they also make it easy for the reader to squeeze in a chapter on a lunch break or before going to sleep. I especially loved the single-page chapter entitled ‘Expectation‘, which is all about learning to accept yourself unconditionally, even if you are struggling:

“She imagined accepting it all. The way she accepted nature. The way she accepted a glacier or a puffin or the breach of a whale. She imagined seeing herself as just another brilliant freak of nature. Just another sentient animal, trying their best. And in doing so, she imagined what it was like to be free.”

MATT HAIG

There are not many books that I’ve read that can compare this to, but if you’re a fan of Matt Haig’s work (check out ‘How to stop time‘ and ‘Reasons to stay alive’) – or if you’re simply looking for something that will take you away from all the current uncertainty in the world – this is a must-read. 5/5


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