The Midnight Library Book Review

Book Review | The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

TW: depression, suicide

Nora Seed is a thirty-something living in Bedford. A few days before she decides to end her life, she walks through the town centre, seeing a ‘conveyer belt of despair’. Feeling that nothing in her life has panned out the way she planned, she reflects that she ‘always had the sense that she came from a long line of regrets and crushed hopes that seemed to echo in every generation.’ There’s nothing, Nora feels, worth living for – her cat has died, she’s lost her job, and is estranged from everyone in her life she loves. In the fog of a deep depression, she takes an overdose.

And she wakes up in the midnight library. The library is the liminal space between life or death, a place where every choice we’ve made in our lives creates another path of possibility in the multiverse, represented as a book on the many shelves. Mrs Elm, Nora’s friendly librarian from school, runs this library, too. She explains to Nora that she can pick from an infinite number of lives she may have lived. She will return to the midnight library if that life isn’t for her, and has the opportunity to pick a different path. She is dropped into the life with no knowledge of how that version of herself lives, and has to improvise – and quickly.

Nora sees the world in which she never left her fiancé, moved to Australia with her best friend, became a glaciologist, an Olympic swimmer, tours the world as a famous musician… and a vast number of other lives that she never quite feels at home in. What was moving was the refrain of her often finding her antidepressants in whatever life she is living – no matter what conventional parameters of success she appears to have reached, the same demons plague her.

‘…And that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness. You can’t have one without the other. Of course, they come in different degrees and quantities. But there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness for ever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.’

Matt Haig, who has been very open with his own mental health struggles, writes compassionately about depression and hope and survival. Nora is a likeable and compelling heroine that drives a plot that may have floundered under a flatter protagonist. Her degree in Philosophy and the light-touch quantum physics of the library adds more depth and context to the novel.

There are two things that stopped this book from being a 4* read for me. There is some frustration with Nora’s behaviour when she is dropped into lives and makes the same mistakes again and again, even when she becomes adept at trying out different books in the midnight library. And the second is the way that the narrative veers into the trite on occasion; the ‘lessons’ unsubtly smacking the reader in the face.

These are minor points in a piece of contemporary fiction that I know has captured readers’ hearts (a 2020 Goodreads Awards winner) and if this can be a life-affirming book for those who need it, I applaud it wholeheartedly.

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