Imagine a space between life and death, where we have the chance to confront our regrets. For Nora Seed, in the aftermath of an overdose, this liminal space takes the shape of a library, staffed by her beloved school librarian Mrs Elm. The shelves, tightly stacked with books, are infinite, and each of these books offers Nora the chance to visit an alternate universe: a life where, at one point or another, she made a different choice. Riddled with regret, she’s spoiled for choice; but will these other-lives engender new regrets of their own? All she can do is step bravely forward, and find out. Before I proceed, I should say that Matt Haig‘s books haven’t always won me over – I wasn’t keen on How To Stop Time – and I felt a bit resigned when my book club chose The Midnight Library as our next read. However, I must give credit where it’s due. The book may be mawkish; it may play brazenly on emotions; its message may be as subtle as an express train hurtling through a station; but, almost in spite of myself, I actually rather liked it.
Nora Seed has reached a point where she has nothing left worth living for. Her parents are dead, she has lost her job, and she didn’t have the courage to go through with her recent wedding. Her brother Joe has dropped out of contact, having never forgiven her for destroying his dream of taking their band global, just after they’d been signed by Universal. And her best friend Izzy is off in Australia, fading ever further from Nora’s reach. She can’t even keep up her side job as a piano teacher. She lives in Bedford, a ‘conveyor belt of despair’ (a bit harsh: I quite like Bedford). And her cat just died. Quite frankly, Nora is through with it. Her whole life has been a failure. She missed so many opportunities to make it better. What if she’d kept up her successful competitive swimming career, as her dad wanted, rather than giving up because it was too difficult? What if she’d followed her childhood dream of becoming a glaciologist? What if she’d stayed with the band, the Labyrinths, and gone on that global tour with them, rather than stepping down because she didn’t want to leave Dan, her fiancé? What if she’d married Dan and helped him achieve his dream of running a country pub? What if she’d gone to Australia with Izzy, rather than staying behind for no reason other than a vague sense of not being worthy? What if? What if? What if? Every decision that Nora has made seems to have been the wrong one. The world will be better off without her.
Then there’s the library. A vast, hushed building, full of books, where the clock is permanently stuck on midnight. Mrs Elm, one of the few people in Nora’s life who has been kind and encouraging to her, waits at her familiar desk. The books, millions upon millions of them, stretch into infinity. And Mrs Elm explains that Nora can try out her regrets, one by one. All she has to do is name a regret, and state the choice she wishes she’d made instead. She’ll then be able to experience the life she would have had if she’d made that other choice. If Nora finds a life that she prefers to her own, she can stay there, slipping it on like a glove, gradually taking on the memories and habits of her alternate-universe self. Eventually she’ll forget that she ever had any other life. A universe of possibility opens up in front of Nora: finally she can find out what it would have been like to be an Olympic swimmer; a rock star; a glaciologist; a wife. A perfect life is out there for the taking. She just has to find out what it is, before time runs out.
Reading this book has provoked something of an internal battle. Think of it as a boxing ring. In one corner: my cynical British self, the self which winces when people speak of ‘practising gratitude’ and disapproves of anything emblazoned with motivational slogans. This self, if asked, would say that the book was enjoyable, better written than some of the other Haig novels I’ve read, and satisfying enough, even though you could predict the ending pretty much from the start. It might suggest that the overall feel of the book is best described as Groundhog Day meets It’s a Wonderful Life, as written by Mitch Albom. (To be fair, that self does have a point.) In the other corner: my anxiety-riddled self, which experiences the world with a constant voiceover, second-guessing, replaying, fretting over whether I did or said the right thing. It can be crippling. And this self found comfort in the book’s message that there isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way. One choice may well put us on a certain path, but that path is also shaped by other decisions that we don’t even notice taking, and by factors far beyond our control.
I was prompted to look hard at my own life and concluded that, actually, I don’t regret a single thing in my past, because everything I’ve ever done has brought me here. If one tiny thing had been different (that butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, you see?) I might not be here, with my dream job, in a lovely flat, with wonderful parents, about to marry the person I love most in all the world. The things that have hurt me in the past – and there are relatively few of them – can be accepted, because they were necessary steps on the path to being here: forges that I had to pass through in order to be tempered.
Books aren’t always good simply for their own qualities. They can be important for what they provoke in their readers and, even though I know that I was being manipulated towards the emotions I felt above, they were vital, necessary emotions, and I let myself be swept along by the current. Yes, The Midnight Library may be sentimental and predictable, but it just happened to be the right book at the right moment. And, for that, I’m grateful. Goodness knows how I’m going to explain all of that in my book club.