Book Review: The Midnight Library

Despite having read many a great thing about Matt Haig (and saved almost every other instagram post of his) over the years, The Midnight Library, was my first dalliance with his works of fiction. Covering themes such as suicide and depression, this book catalogues the quandaries of a 35-year-old Nora who – at the end of a seriously s**t day – decides the world is better off without her. However, rather than leaving the world per se, she enters the mysterious “Midnight Library”, a place that exists between life and death. Here, she is offered the opportunity to change any decision she’s ever made and to live her life anew – limitlessly. Essentially this books explores those age-old questions, if you could go back in time, would you do anything differently? More importantly, if you did, would you be any happier?

The book starts with Nora playing chess with her school librarian moments before she is told that her Dad has passed away. Over a decade later, Nora is having an absolute whopper of a day; her cat dies; she’s fired; her one and only music student quits; her brother and ex-band mate still blame her for their failed music career and her elderly neighbour enlists someone new to drop off his prescriptions. The onslaught of these misfortunes make Nora more than intent to end her life. Following an overdose, however, she finds herself in The Midnight Library. A library between life and death, where time is paused and choices are endless. Here, she can “correct” any decision she’s ever made – big or small – and live her life again from that point onwards. What ensues is Nora living all the lives could have lived e.g. if she had stuck with swimming; if she had married her ex-fiancé; if she had stuck with the band.. Gradually she learns that regret is a destructive emotion that stops her from valuing the present and prevents her from moving forwards. She must let go of regret if she is to truly live.

Firstly, I think I would have been hard-pushed not to have felt uplifted by this title. Although its premise is very sombre (honestly, I cried for the first few chapters), the way in which these universal emotions of sadness and dejection are explored, provides the reader with an opportunity to similarly consider the regret they have in their own lives. We too must learn that every decision is made for a reason and that to obsess over the past is to deny ourselves happiness in the present. Indeed, no life is perfect in itself. As such, Haig expertly combines the empowering knowledge of How to Stay Alive – discussing his own battle with depression – with the imagination of the science fiction genre; this book has the power to change lives. Whilst reading this book, I was actually reminded of something, Alain de Botton, once said. He said that the problem with today’s society is that we tell everyone that they can can be anything that they want to be. Unfortunately, this instills a sort of choice paralysis in people (myself included) whereby they never know what they want to be, but simultaneously mourn not becoming any of the things they could have been. In this way, Haig offers a touching narrative that speaks of the joys to be found in just living and making one small decision at a time.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t occasionally predictable and, at times, repetitive. Haig’s overall existential message is inevitably empowering. However, I personally found some passages a little preachy and, basically, reiterations of the same self-help quotes we see everyday. If you haven’t read How to Stay Alive, I would actually recommend reading The Midnight Library first. This is because, although Haig’s experiences with depression influences a lot of his work, I suspect there are far more crossovers between these two particular titles, due to the discussion of suicide and the value in living. Unrelated to this, is the predictability of the plot. Of course, this could simply be the sign of great foreshadowing, but (for me) I would have liked to have been surprised a bit more – particularly when the time-travel aspect provides such narrative freedom. Nevertheless, these are very minor gripes in the grand scheme of things, because I loved the concept of this title and the “feel-good” feeling it ignites in its readers.

More than eager to be initiated into the ‘I heart Haig’ fan club, I gobbled this book up when it was gifted to me by Canongate, and I’m so glad I was. Through Haig’s compassionate prose, I have been taught anew about the expansiveness of life and its magical interconnectivity. This experience is all enhanced with the delicate collaging of theological philosophy, pressing mental health issues and environmental change, all of which affect us globally. Haig has a brilliant way of shining light into the darkness; a power he has been able to acquire through having been in this turmoil himself. All I can say is, reading this book will not be a decision you regret.

…but it may leave you ugly crying in a coffee shop.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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