Haig, Matt. The Midnight Library. Harper Avenue, 2020. E-book.
Somehow, until my reading group chose The Midnight Library, I was unfamiliar with Matt Haig’s work. I discovered The Midnight Library’s popularity is such that all my local bookstores were unable to supply me with a hardback copy, and the paperback is not due until later this year in Canada. Therefore, I had to rely on my e-reader.
I suppose the first question I asked myself as I began the book was whether in my mind The Midnight Library deserved its popularity. Certainly, its story of Nora Seed who decides to die raises all those “What if” questions we sometimes ask ourselves. “What if I had worked harder in high school?” “Why did I not call X back?” “Should I have . . . ?” “If only I’d . . . .”: all those questions about “where would I be now if I had only acted differently then?” Perhaps the novel’s popularity lies in the fact that we all ask those questions, and there really are no satisfactory answers to them. We are where we are. Aren’t we?
Perhaps. Consider string theory and its relation to the concept of the multiverse. Haig obviously intends us to consider that relationship. Nora works in a music store called String Theory, and for most of the novel she is moving from one possible version of her life to another. Finding herself in the midnight library with her old high school teacher Mrs. Elm, Nora takes different books from the shelf, each one a possible version of her life. I won’t say any more about the plot or about how the novel ends, other than to say the ending is unsurprising, and, said she somewhat tritely, all endings initiate some kind of new beginnings.
I did not not enjoy The Midnight Library. I quite liked Haig’s humour. However, at times, I felt he was being overly clever and such cleverness tempted me to want more depth in the novel than I actually found. There were moments where I suspected even Haig was getting bored with all of Nora’s possible other lives and ultimately galloped through them, so he could get to write the final chapters. What Haig’s tone does do, however, is save Nora from becoming a character we don’t actually like very much, even as we feel tempted to tell her to “get a grip.” The Midnight Library’s premise suggests the novel could possibly be several things: a psychological novel about depression, a philosophical novel with an existentialist point of view, a philosophical novel examining ideas about determinism, a social novel examining popular culture and its need for icons, a social novel commenting on class and education. It suggests all these possible themes and more but doesn’t really get to grips with any of them.
Perhaps I am asking too much. Certainly, other reviews of this novel, which I discovered came out in paperback in the UK today (writing this on 19th February), praise Haig’s empathy and compassion. What I will say in my own defence is that the other members of my reading group had similar concerns to mine. We none of us disliked the book; we even enjoyed it, but we actually found we had little to discuss about it, an unusual situation for us. There are two ways of regarding this situation: one is that the novel is empathetic but somewhat superficial; the other, that the novel is complete and needs no more. You will, of course, draw your own conclusion should you choose to engage with The Midnight Library.