Some people like to clear the review pile before the end of the year. Mine got so large that was never an option and will keep me going for some time.
The first novel I’m reviewing this year has dark themes of attempted suicide and being tied down by regret, so I’m not starting the year’s reviews with something outwardly cheerful. That said, it has a very valuable message for our mental health, so is particularly pertinent as we go into lockdown again.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Haig is well-known in his books for adults for dealing with mental health issues, be it in non-fiction or fiction. His latest novel is no exception, dealing with a young woman who is planning to commit suicide. It is also a time-slip novel, offering an interesting take on parallel lives.
We begin though with the prologue, in which Nora Seed is a quiet schoolgirl in Bedford, taking refuge in the school library, which is managed by Mrs Elm. Haig introduces Nora with the phrase: ‘Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed…’ After the introduction, we jump to nineteen years later, and,
‘Twenty-seven hours before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat on her dilapidated sofa scrolling through other people’s happy lives, waiting for something to happen. And then, out of nowhere, something actually did.’
I’m not going to say what, but over the next hours, quite a few things happen to Nora, none of them good. All build disappointment upon disappointment for Nora who was already in a very fragile state. By the time the clock reaches zero, Nora has decided to die. We are on page 23.
She comes to, at midnight in a building full of books. A lady appears, sixtyish. She’s the librarian. Her name is Mrs Elm (of course). She explains where Nora is:
‘Between life and death there is a library,’ she said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?’
Mrs Elm gives Nora her ‘book of regrets’ to direct her towards the books that contain other lives pertinent to those regrets listed within. Firstly, Nora gravitates towards the country pub that her then partner Dan had so wanted them to run together, before she left him.
This is merely the first of many lives that Nora tries out, disconcerted at first when arriving suddenly in a new situation, having to pick up information quickly. In one of the lives, she meets another person living in-between life and death. Hugo spots the tell-tale vagueness as Nora gets the feel for her situation, (tellingly, his library equivalent is a video store run by his uncle). But, in each parallel live, as soon as she realises a dissatisfaction, a realisation that the life is wrong somehow, she is transported back to the library. How many lives can she try out? Will she ever find the one in which she can be satisfied and happy? We have to ask too, will she live or will she die?
I found Haig’s take on living parallel lives fascinating and well done, building up a mindset that we shouldn’t be defined by our regrets. Despite the dark subject matter, there is a lot of humour in his writing style, something Haig has always done in his novels, he can make you laugh one minute, cry the next with bittersweet tragicomedy and empathy for his main characters. (See my review of The Humans here). Added to this is the fact that we know that Nora may be dying, which makes The Midnight Library a real page-turner of a story, we all know how it should end and read on with hope.
I very much enjoyed reading The Midnight Library. If you’re not sure, BBC Radio 4 adapted it in ten episodes just before Christmas, (available here if you have a BBC account). (9/10)
Source: Own copy. Matt Haig, The Midnight Library (Canongate, 2020) hardback, 304 pages.
BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P) – paperback due out in Feb.