Nora Seed’s life is going nowhere. Once an aspiring swimming star, rockstar and glaciologist, her relationship with her boyfriend Dan is over and her brother’s barely in contact, she’s just lost her part-time job, and her cat Voltaire is found dead on the side of the road. Thinking her potential is lost, and everything is over, Nora plans to end everything…until she wakes up in the Midnight Library. The Midnight Library’s is Nora’s consciousness’s way of dealing with quantum immortality and alternative universes, with its head her former school librarian and only real maternal figure, Mrs Elm. Now she has the chance to relive her lost lives, make her way through her book of regrets, what could have been. In the process, we wonder what could have been if we’d diverged a different path in life. What will Nora Seed learn?
The Midnight Library is a 2020 novel by Matt Haig, part-fantasy and part-philosophical manifesto. During the lockdown, everyone and their cat was talking about this novel, and I was lured by the prospect of another book about a bookstore/library where magical things happen. Just see my previous reviews for Pages and Co by Anna James and The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but when I do, apparently there’s a lot of magical bookstores and magical libraries. Need more? I’m also intrigued by The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu and The Little Shop of Found Things by Paula Brackston. But…back to The Midnight Library. Everyone and their cute cats (named after literary references a la Leo in Elegance of the Hedgehog) were fascinated by The Midnight Library. I was late to the train until early this year, when I chanced upon the Carey Mulligan-narrated audiobook on Borrowbox. Ooh, I thought. I liked her in Never Let Me Go. And Promising Young Woman was okay, but it got me obsessed with Juice Newton’s Angel of the Morning, so it has that going for it. So I started listening. But was it worth it?
Partly ‘yes’ and partly ‘no.’
The Midnight Library starts of beautifully. I really enjoyed listening to Carey Mulligan’s narration; she probably kept me listening for longer than I’d have read in physical form. Her voice is mesmerising and perfect for the Philosophy Lite themes going on in this book. The concept of quantum immortality and alternate universes was what got me interested initially—it took me back to when I discovered the Mandela Effect and dimensional jumping theories back in 2017, and the crippling anxiety that resulted from the existential dread. I liked Nora, the portrayal of a character who’s not living the life she expected to be living at her age. A character everyone ‘expected’ so much more of, and she’s kind of just living, existing, passing the days by.
I was riveted at the start, when Nora first discovers the Midnight Library and starts living out some of her biggest regrets. Inside the Midnight Library is the Book of Regrets, and shockingly, the book is filled with all of Nora’s biggest regrets and is an overwhelming, exhausting, depressing book to even merely touch the pages. She lives these lives, and I was there with her…but that’s around the time I noticed Haig’s philosophical moralising. I spoke with my mum, who was also reading the book, and she had only rave reviews. I then asked her: Does it end how I think it does? And I predicted the ending, because these sorts of books—especially with Haig’s Goodreads-pithy, Twitter-bio, Instagram-aesthetic-moodboard quotes and passages and the stupid, forced reason Nora was a Philosophy major at university—always end up the same way. There’s only two ways they can end. A) The character dies, or likely, B) The character realises their original life was the best one to live after all. The best life was the morals we learned along the way, blah blah. My mum basically admitted as much. I put the book down (or renewed the audiobook unsure even if I would ever finish it). I’d read this sort of book before. I got back to it, mainly because of last month’s blog post. While Haig’s words, especially Mulligan’s narration, kept me reading, I was bored, because I knew exactly how it would end. All this profound BS that, while not entirely nonsense (because I could take the best and practice it in my life), made the remaining three hours a drag, oh it really did. I did enjoy Nora living her life with Ash the doctor, because of her realisation with Ash (and later, Mr Banerjee) but it was like waiting for the inevitable, like that lone dinosaur awaiting the meteors in all the end-of-the-dinosaurs artwork.
I enjoy my self-help, and I’m not going to put the book down a rating for that reason. Sometimes it’s good to blur the boundary between literary and genre, self-help and fantasy novel. But I began sighing every time Mrs Elm would reply to Nora with something perfectly quotable, like something Haig had heard in a Philosophy 101 lecture or while reading Voltaire or Plato or whoever it was. Nora, recalling that same knowledge, would recite the same messages. I did like the positivity, still, in that Nora is thirty-five and thought her life was meaningless and over and not worth trying again, but learnt through her lives and Hugo the other Jumper and Mrs Elm’s wisdom that it’s never too late to start again. If you’re like Nora—and I empathised with her in more ways than one—there’s nothing wrong with Haig’s philosophy. It’s only bad when he bashes you so blatantly over the head with flowery quotable quotes about how life will get better and when you think you’ve hit a rough patch, good times will happen. And it does for Nora. Things do get better. She gets what she wants. We all deserve second chances. Just ’cause you think you’re stuck, doesn’t mean it’s all it. Done. Finished. But it doesn’t mean the majority of your life’s problems will be wrapped with a nice bow just because you quote the Robert Frost poem about the path less travelled. It’s a hard journey, like Nora’s struggle to get to Mr Banerjee, and nothing is simple.
One part of the ending I enjoyed was the wrap-up between Nora and Mrs Elm. While most of the last three hours was predictable, her interaction with the elderly Mrs Elm was sweet and a nice touch. For all I criticise about Haig’s bashing you over the head with his belief that philosophy is the key to curing depression. I suppose it’s hard to compare to reality—I suppose, if you were faced with a Midnight Library (Midnight Library Multiple Lives, geddit!?), it may be an entirely different situation, comparable to years of therapy. People like Nora and Hugo spends decades, centuries, of their lives living as alternate versions of themselves, trying in the end to be comfortable with the real them. Nora understands someone like Hugo will never be happy—he is uncomfortable with who he is as a person, and he will be stuck opening the pages (in his case, listening to records) of each book of What Ifs? ad nauseam for the rest of eternity. Perhaps that is why my review is so complicated and all over the place; in a philosophical sense, I am still writing my life story. What Haig teaches us is that the Book of Regrets overtakes many of us—indeed, it is a core element of anxiety disorders—and we need to realise there is only one us that matters, and that’s the Us of now. We can’t change the past, we can change the present, and if that isn’t the most flowery way of describing my complicated relationship The Midnight Library, I don’t know what else to say.
‘The Midnight Library’ by Matt Haig is a sweet little book that makes you think, but struggles to toe the line between Philosophy PhD’s thesis, with quotes purposely written with the aim of being quoted in Instagram mood boards and Tinder bios, with thought-provoking magical realism about alternate universes and living your best life with fear of the regrets of the past.