In Matt Haig’s enchanting new novel, The Midnight Library, the main protagonist, Nora Seed, finds herself presented with a great decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realising her dreams of becoming a glaciologist, she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library. She tries to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.
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Nora Seed is dissatisfied in her life. Her cat “Voltaire” is dead, her brother is disinterested in having a relationship with her, and she’s been fired from her job: nobody needs her. Life has simply come to the point where it’s overpowering and all-consuming, and Nora can’t see a way out, so she comes to the decision to kill herself late one night. Instead of death, Nora discovers a library with each volume representing an alternative version of her life in which she made vastly different decisions.
There’s a Nora who became a rock star, another who has won Olympic medals, and yet another who works on an Arctic research vessel; there are Noras who are moms, wives, orphans, renowned and influential, or not. To enter that life, she only needs to open the book. She can stay if she finds a decent life; the challenge is judging “whether a life could truly be assessed from only a few minutes after midnight on a Tuesday.”.
But, after living over a thousand different lives, will she be able to figure out which one is ideal for her and which life will allow her to discover true happiness?
Will she be able to survive without her family, or will she be able to cope with the death of her friends? What is it that she truly desires? What does she have in mind? Will she, above all, learn to confront the things she most regrets? Because no matter how eager she is to begin her new life with open arms, the grips of regret always pull her back and keep her from seeing what she wants.
The Midnight Library is based on the Many-worlds hypothesis, which states that every choice and decision creates a new universe. It’s an exciting concept, but Matt Haig doesn’t go into much detail about it; his main interest is Nora’s psychological reaction to witnessing all these other versions of herself – and her willingness, or inability, to live without regret.
This is a short tale with no side storylines, a large cast of characters, or fancy twists for the sake of it. The thought not only soars high, but it also flies straight. The Midnight Library is a lovely introduction to science fiction for individuals who the genre may turn off.
These are the terms that spring to mind after reading this book: beautiful, significant, brilliant, passionate, heart wrenching, lyrical, and realistic. The novel was both devastating and impossible to put down. I regret that I started it late at night and had to complete it the next day! The world-building and writing in the novel were outstanding. Every page seemed like I was highlighting a new quote as I read along.
The work has the feel of a well-executed exercise in dealing with despair and anxiety. What is the finest and worst thing that might happen in your life? What are you able to change for the better, and what are you unable to improve? The narration occasionally lapses into the trite and evident at moments of Nora’s elation or suicidal lows – “the prison wasn’t the place, but the perspective”; contrary to the fantastical premise, the novel turns out to be a celebration of the ordinary: ordinary revelations, ordinary people, and the infinity of regret.