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Book Review: The Midnight Library

Millie Stanley-Davy discusses Haig's modest and thoughtful interpretation of the often explored literary theme of second chances.

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Image Credit: Canongate Books, 2020

The Midnight Library is an insightful and poignant exploration into regret, second chances and ultimately the joys and tribulations of simply living. The book follows Nora, a dejected 35 year old who, after overdosing, finds herself transported to a library. This library is crammed full of books containing parallel lives she could have lived. This concept of second chances that Haig adopts has often been explored. A Wonderful Life focuses on the different lives that George Bailey could have lived, and Sliding Doors looks at the consequences of trivial actions, such as missing the tube. Matt Haig builds on this theme whilst also adding his own unique style, and this is what beautifully sets The Midnight Library apart.

Haig distils complex quantum physics theories into the metaphor of a library, and in doing so makes sure that Nora's relationships and emotions remain the epicentre of the story. This is most notably shown through the librarian Mrs Elm, who guides Nora through choosing between her parallel lives. Whilst Nora is between life and death, her experience of this is defined by her original life. Mrs Elm was in fact her school librarian, who helped teenage Nora navigate sorrow and indecision and is still doing so in the metaphorical library. Nora’s original lived experiences also serve as a foundation for her parallel lives, such as her engagement to Dan and the death of her cat. Whilst it would have been fascinating to have delved further into the concept of parallel universes, the triumph of The Midnight Library is that it explores what it means to be human and so prioritises Nora’s personal experiences over theoretical concepts.

The library serves as a respite between Nora’s visits to her different potential lives. Within these lives, her regrets and past choices are often undone, yet they are rarely idyllic. In the beginning, Nora is consumed with despair about what she sees as her unsatisfactory and failed life. Her sorrow stands out and she is initially wallowing in regret. For example, in the knowledge that she didn’t get married to Dan. Yet Haig masterfully shows how many of Nora’s regrets are unfounded. Dan turns out to be cheating and manipulative, dispelling Nora’s fears that by not getting married she has ruined their dreams of owning a pub. Haig makes sure that each life explored serves a purpose in healing Nora’s despair. The death of her cat Voltaire is one of the main regrets leading to her overdose. She is racked with guilt as she believes his death was her fault. However, through the parallel lives Haig shows that Voltaire's life in her care was the best possible. The theme of forgiveness continues throughout the book, and it is one of its greatest triumphs.

In some lives she is famous, in others surrounded by her family. Each life has a price, and Nora is often plagued with depression no matter how successful she is.  A number of her lives are destroyed by deaths and other sorrowful events. This serves to drive the plot forward, and yet Nora’s quest to find the perfect life seems at times futile. Even when confronted with the perfect life, there are always consequences and missed experiences.

Yet this is Haig’s point. No life is perfect, and yet no life is without hope. Through Nora’s journey, Haig deals with subjects of mental health and suicide with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Even though many of her parallel lives do not become permanent, each proves to Nora, and the reader, that living can be wonderful even if it is sometimes marred by hardship. This is what is constantly shown through Nora’s story. The story in itself is remarkable, yet it is this concept that holds the real message of Haig’s book.

The Midnight Library is the perfect length. Each chapter is considered with great care, and no page feels unnecessary in Nora’s quest for happiness. It is a common wish that books could continue on for longer, yet this one considers each aspect of the story with due attention. Whilst the ending is not surprising, Haig succinctly concludes Nora’s story with sensitivity and finesse, producing a satisfying ending that draws all the threads of the story together.

The Midnight Library is not a groundbreaking book, yet it does contain a magic of its own. It compels the reader to consider their choices in life and how to deal with regret. These themes are not starkly obvious but instead delicately woven into Nora’s story. I immensely enjoyed reading Haig’s book, and it seems especially relevant in this turbulent and uncertain climate. Haig ultimately asks ‘What life would you choose if you had infinite choices?’ and yet The Midnight Library masterfully shows that the answer is not as obvious as it might first seem.

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