So I have had mixed results with Matt Haig to date: I adored How to Stop Time but disliked The Humans. In both cases, I appreciated Haig’s perspicacity and philosophy, but the overall storytelling in The Humans didn’t work for me, whereas How to Stop Time was cute and romantic and poignant. So I was looking forward to The Midnight Library acting as a kind of tie-breaker to tell me if I should keep reading Haig. I won’t keep you in suspense: this is one of the good ones, folx, every bit as or better than How to Stop Time.
Trigger warnings for attempted suicide on page and mentions of suicide, death, alcoholism, cancer, car crashes.
Nora Seed is full of regrets, and after a particularly bad day in which she loses her cat, her job, her only piano student, and even her responsibility to pick up prescriptions for her elderly neighbour, Nora decides she doesn’t want to live. But instead of death she finds the Midnight Library, where a person in the form of her old school librarian, Mrs. Elm, greets her and exhorts her to choose a different life. Each book on each of the infinite shelves in Nora’s library represents a different Nora, a different life being lived based on one more slightly divergent choices from our Nora’s root life.
So the story unfolds, chapter by chapter, life by life, as Nora explores and expunges her regrets. In this way, Haig explores the perennial question of: if you could change something about your life, would you? And what effect would that have, really? Nora’s first attempts at finding a new, more satisfactory life are as fumbling as you would expect. They falter more on semantics than anything else. As she refines her ability to express the type of life for which she is looking, Nora learns soon that concepts like happiness and success are not easily quantified or even qualified.
Indeed, much like the wonderful Siddhartha, what I took away from The Midnight Library is the important theme that happiness is not a state you can achieve but rather a transitory experience that comes and goes. There is no life out there in which I am happy all of the time. Every version of my life has happy moments and sad ones. The pursuit of happiness is illusory and elusive, because it is not something to be attained but something to enjoy while it endures, and to remember when it slips away.
I think about this a lot right now because, of course, I am going through a big transition. In my review of Transhood, an HBO documentary, I ruminate on whether I am better or worse off for having realized I am trans at 30 rather than at 5 or 13. What would my life have been like if I had transitioned earlier? And no matter how much I ponder, I have to admit the only answer that has any merit is: different. My life would have been different. Probably not better or worse, but just different.
That’s the secret Nora discovers and Haig unfurls as he travels the tapestry of her lives: most of our alternative lives are neither better nor worse than the one we have; they are different. So I wasn’t all that surprised by the ending, by Nora’s ultimate fate. My prediction didn’t spoil my enjoyment, because Haig’s writing is beautiful and his distillation of poignant philosophical ideas is a soothing balm after a year of existential dread. I think some people will be dissatisfied with the ending because they somehow want more from this book, and I wouldn’t blame them, because Haig sets himself a nigh-impossible task with this kind of story. All I can really say in apology is that this is very much a book that is about the journey, not the destination.
Inevitably, The Midnight Library reminded me of My Real Children, which absolutely blew my mind. They basically have identical themes, yet each is different enough in conceit to stand on its own, and I enjoyed Haig’s approach to these ideas. But if you liked this book, do yourself a favour and pick up Walton’s, because there is way more where this came from.
I’m not sure I’ve decided what criteria make me love versus dislike a Haig novel yet. Maybe it’s the way he writes his main characters. Maybe it’s just the premise behind the story. I guess I’ll have to keep reading him, and at some point, in some life, I’ll have it figured out.