The Midnight Library is the deceptively deft story of depressed Nora who decides to end it all after the death of her beloved cat and reflecting that her life has amounted to a big fat zero. She has so many regrets you could make a book of them, and this is in fact the case – she reads her ‘Book of Regrets’ in the titular Midnight Library at the behest of the librarian Mrs Elm. The library is Nora’s own private limbo – a metaphysical bubble where the clocks are stopped at 00:00 – where Nora is given the chance to examine her regrets by living lives she could have had across the multiverse of possibilities that branch from every decision point like a nebulous tree of life. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Nora’s surname is Seed and Mrs Elm refers to a tree.
On reading some of the back page blurb and snippets of rave reviews inside the first few pages (something I usually try to avoid in case there are spoilers – like there will be here by the way) I understood the book to be Haig’s version of A Wonderful Life and having read pretty much every other of his novels for adults including How to Stop Time, The Humans and most recently The Dead Fathers Club (although I’m still not sure what readership group that book was aimed at) expected a lot of interesting commentary about mental health.
I also had a pretty good idea how the book would end, and I hoped that Haig would add something of value along the way to Nora inevitably realising that her ‘root life’ wasn’t so bad and learning to take happiness in the small things and people around her. She does and there’s a lot of fun and some nice nuggets of philosophy along the way, and while he story has dark undertones it is told in a typically light way by Haig. Nora find herself in her own Quantum Leap reboot jumping from life to life and returning to the library in between to talk to Mrs Elm who is some higher power’s manifestation of her chess-playing mentor from her school years.
Nora of course has a number of great alternative lives to choose from. This is where I raised an eyebrow but then what a boring book it would be if it was based on most people’s possible options. So we have a number of wish-fulfilment options to choose from – rock star, glacial scientist and Olympic swimmer being the main three. All are laden with pitfalls, not least of which are – having to learn the lyrics of songs from your albums you have no recollection of writing, talking to fellow scientists (including a guy on a similar metaphysical journey) about why glaciers vibrate (or some such theory, I can’t recall exactly) and having to give a speech to thousands of event attendees about positivity and achieving your goals.
There are also numerous iterations of more banal lives mentioned where various members of her family are either dead or suffering addictions, where she is married, where she has a child, where she is fulfilling someone else’s dreams – for example her boyfriend’s dream of getting married and opening a country pub in Oxfordshire. All these lives are rejected by Nora as she finds something fundamentally wrong with each.
As I am now part way through reading Derren Brown’s philosophical anti-self-help-book Happy (the timing isn’t accidental) it’s obvious that Nora’s journey is set out to intentionally walk us through a particular school of thought advocating the notion that you should not live to fulfil other people’s goals, you should not try too hard to achieve unrealistic goals, that the universe doesn’t give two hoots about what you want from life, that your life story doesn’t necessarily reflect what happened and why, and that happiness must coexist with pain to hold any value etc. etc.
It seems rather diminishing to describe The Midnight Library as a ‘feel good book’ but essentially that’s what it is. I actually feel a whole lot better having read it. I hope that if some filmmakers get their hands on the rights to turn it into a movie that they don’t lose the nuanced and thought-provoking messages that are baked into seemingly rather over-played premise which dates back to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and beyond.
Here’s a interview Matt Haig did last year with Waterstone’s –