The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Viking. 2020. 288 pages.
Reviewed by Brittany Glenn
Most of us live with regrets about decisions we’ve made in our past. Looking back, we may label these choices as “bad,” judge them as “missed opportunities,” or dream about how great our lives could have turned out if only. If only I had married that person, pursued that career path, had children, not had children, gotten that job, and so on. But for those of us who spend time dwelling on such regrets—and let’s face it, that’s most of humankind—author Matt Haig has a message, as told through the story of protagonist Nora Seed in Haig’s novel The Midnight Library. Indeed, the themes represented in the novel are so universal they apply to every human on the planet, which may account for its wildly popular ride in the world of mainstream fiction.
In her mid-thirties, single and childless, the everywoman character Nora Seed regrets backing out of marrying her ex-fiancé, dropping her dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer, neglecting to earn a master’s degree, and giving up her music career, among other misgivings. We meet her when she is having a very bad day. Her boss fires her from a dead-end job at a music store named String Theory (a double entendre squared, we later learn) and, when she gets home, a guy knocks on her door to tell her he found her cat dead on the side of a road. It’s all too much for Nora, so she decides to take her own life by swallowing pills. When she wakes up, she finds herself in the midnight library—a giant building filled with glowing shelves of books. Here, Nora meets Mrs. Elm, her school librarian in her root life, a gray-haired wise guide who explains that the books represent different lives and helps Nora choose which books—or lives—to try on.
Haig skillfully introduces the concept of the multiverse—the idea that there are parallel universes simultaneously co-existing with others. This isn’t a new premise in fiction (particularly in sci-fi/fantasy), but Haig does a beautiful job of depicting how the multiverse model could be carried out in our everyday lives. “Every moment of your life you enter a new universe,” the tertiary messenger character Hugo tells Nora during their discussion of the “many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.” Haig then shows the reader how the multiverse works by allowing us to peek into the multiple lives of Nora Seed through entertaining and creative “mini” chapters or vignettes, some as short as one page, such as those sharing her social posts, song lyrics and poems.
The novel speaks to a shared human tendency to wonder how things would have turned out if we had done things differently. In a chapter entitled “The Podcast of Revelations,” one of the funniest and most memorable in the novel, Nora is a rock star who is interviewed in a hotel room by a podcasting journalist named Marcelo. He asks her if she ever wonders what her life would have been like if she had taken a different path. Nora answers, “Every second of every day we are entering a new universe. We spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people and to other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good and degrees of bad.” For those of us who have an inner critic who likes to beat us down—that voice in our head telling us we could’ve done better, should’ve done this, if only we would have done that—the message of this book might be: Lighten up, kiddo. You did the best you could at the time. Now, accept yourself, moles and all. Now, love yourself and your choices. And it’s not over until it’s over. As Nora muses, “While we are alive we always contain a future of multifarious possibility.”
Another theme Haig touches on, which I really responded to on a personal level, is the significance of humanity’s connection to nature. In one of Haig’s “mini” chapters, Nora is in Svalbard—an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole—when a polar bear frightens the wits out of her. She realizes she wants to live, just as animals and trees and flowers survive and thrive every day. As Nora concludes, “To be part of nature was to be part of the will to live.” Such a simple yet brilliant message. Haig also emphasizes the perfection of solitude in nature as a way to get in touch with the peace inside ourselves. “Amid pure nature (or the ‘tonic of wilderness’ as Thoreau called it) solitude … became in itself a kind of connection … between herself and the world. And between herself and herself.” Henry David Thoreau’s influence is felt throughout the novel, as is the influence of other philosophers and writers—including Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and David Hume—as Haig weaves their quotes and ideas through the narrative, bringing Haig’s own work into relation with the larger literary tradition. But the author’s use of quotes may have been unnecessary; the novel’s themes and messages are meaningful and compelling enough to stand on their own.
My only qualm about the novel is Haig’s treatment of serious and complex issues such as suicide and depression. For instance, when Nora decides to kill herself, the author glosses over the grisly details of how exactly she commits suicide. She does not reflect on the gravity of such an act and instead wakes up in a magical world of the midnight library, contained in a building with cartoonish roman numerals drawn on its exterior. In a chapter toward the end, Nora ruminates