The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Who hasn’t fantasised what a different version of their life might look like? What if you’d become famous? Or an Olympic athlete? What if you’d become an arctic researcher? A musician? That’s exactly what Matt Haig explores in his latest offering, The Midnight Library (2020).
Nora Seed (and note the pointed symbolism of her surname) is not having a great day. Her cat just died. She’s been fired. Her brother is ignoring her and her neighbour, the only person she has any social contact with, doesn’t need her to bring round his meds any more. So that night, she tries to kill herself.
Instead of death, however, Nora finds herself in a library where each volume on the shelf is a different version of her life. She is met by the librarian, a certain Mrs. Elm (who, coincidentally, was her school librarian), who hands Nora her book of regrets, documenting every regret she has ever had in life. Now Nora is allowed to dip into all the other myriad versions her life could have been and, if she likes the look of one of the lives more than her own, she is allowed to remain in it.
And so come the variants: Nora could be a rockstar, an Olympian, the owner of a pub, a glaciologist, married, a mother – the possibilities are endless. But will any of these lives make her happier than the one she has lived?
This is the burning question that drives Haig’s story, and it is a thought-provoking one at that. In an age of social media that allows us to compare our lives with the carefully cultivated lives of thousands of others at the click of a button, it goes without saying that it’s difficult not to think the grass is greener elsewhere. But as Nora will learn, is this dissatisfaction all just a symptom of our great age of comparison?
Nora’s many lives are all utterly different from one another, but one thing remains the same: she is on antidepressants in each one. No matter how famous, how successful, how apparently content, this fact doesn’t change. Haig is, of course, renowned for his exploration of mental health issues. Reasons To Stay Alive, arguably most successful work, is a non-fiction autobiographical account of his own struggles. But The Midnight Library uses the power of story to try and make sense of Nora’s depression and poses the sometimes painful question of whether it’s possible to change or leave behind these inherent parts of ourselves.
The Midnight Library is moving, poignant, at times upsetting and often funny. Haig is continuing an important conversation about mental health and, far from feeling didactic, this well-paced, page-turner of a novel will leave readers feeling uplifted and hopeful – something we could all do with.
Thank you for bringing this book to my attention.